5 new CDs: Joe Henry, Rufus Wainwright,
Leona Naess, Shelby Lynne, Judith Owen
in the family way
sure, it can irk the rest of us the notion that people
with the right family ties get all the best breaks.
| No average
Joe: Madonna's brother-in-law releases his ninth album. ["joe
henry," by Mary
But deep down we all know that things are rarely
so simple. Anybody's family can be both a blessing and a curse
often on the same damn day. And sometimes even the connected
ones have to slug it out just like everybody else.
Still, whether by genetics, environment or a salient
combination of both, there's logic in the possibility that folks
with such an inside track are often inclined to reveal unambiguous
natural talent. That doesn't guarantee they'll be heard.
Here, as convoluted evidence, are five strong recent
albums by Joe Henry, Rufus Wainwright, Leona Naess, Shelby
Lynne and Judith Owen that all stand up to lots of listening.
Joe Henry's Tiny Voices
Joe Henry went to high school with Madonna and married her sister.
More recently, Madonna had a hit with Henry's "Stop"
(that she rearranged as "Don't Tell Me"). But Henry
doesn't pander, and Tiny Voices is no more likely to make
him a household name than his eight prior discs.
Joe Henry: Tiny Voices.
Ever since his boxing career flamed out some 20
years ago, Henry has evolved as an eclectic jazz-tinged folkie
with a lively bent for exotic cabaret. His last two albums feature
horns by Ornette Coleman and Don Byron.
The recent Tiny Voices is an atmospheric
12-song journey through humid back alleys in faraway locales.
Henry draws subtle shadings from keyboards, woodwinds and brass,
while his words seem to evoke eloquent passages from unwritten
novels where everything is timeless and nothing sounds forced.
The middle of "Dirty Magazine" holds one of Henry's
Sometimes I wish I was king / And held the end
of every string
The fear, the prize, the mortal stain / Of what will come of this
For now I'll let all chance unwind / To keep our secret hearts
And if I choose to see this as a sign / It surely is
Yet, his late-September show at Dante's was impressive
for opposite reasons. The 75-minute set featured Henry as part
of a simple guitar/bass/drum trio that eschewed the detailed production
of those recent recordings. The result was a showcase of fundamental
strengths bandleader, strummer, singer along with
a crisp set of songs, an occasional burst of mysterious, twangy
guitar and the bare bones of consummate skill.
The 2001 release, Scar, is the superior effort
and probably a better place to begin. Which is not unlike
saying New York is better than Minneapolis or San Francisco. Or
But aside from all else, holidays can probably get
pretty wild at the Henry place.
Wainwright: Want One.
Rufus Wainwright's Want One
Rufus Wainwright also has elaborate connections: He's the self-outed
gay lovechild of two iconoclastic '70s singer/songwriters, Loudon
Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle, and his grandfather (Loudon's
dad) wrote and edited for Life magazine.
Rufus is good with words, too. But what really
defines him is a special gift for majestic melodies frequently
displayed to full effect on Want One, his third release.
"Natasha" is breathtakingly beautiful, while "Go
or Go Ahead," "Harvester of Hearts" and "Oh
What a World" aren't far behind.
"My phone's on vibrate for you," he begins
in another, brandishing an easy knack for distilling new perspective
from everyday occurrence.
The album makes exquisite use of strings and orchestra,
but does suffer slightly from an overall sameness in tempo and
tenor. Wainwright, however, often gets it right, and when he does
his songs really soar. He's only 30, Want One is unusually
solid and his future seems assuredly bright.
Naess: Leona Naess.
Leona Naess' Leona Naess
Leona Naess' dad is Diana Ross' ex-husband, but don't let that
Naess' self-titled third album is smart, breezy
pop that imparts lyrical depth along with subtle hooks made of
piano and guitar.
"He's Gone" and "Home" sound
like an insanely catchy pair of hits, while "Calling,"
"Dues to Pay" and "Yes, It's Called Desire"
give the 11-song disc some songwriterly grist.
While Naess' previous recordings have their moments
("New York Baby" from Comatised, the 2000 debut,
is especially worthwhile), she's found a high-water mark in 2003.
Not yet 30, Naess is an intriguing songwriting singer who also
holds serious promise.
Lynne: Identity Crisis.
Shelby Lynne's Identity Crisis
The tough, tragic, well-documented story of the Moorer sisters
is that Shelby Lynne and Allison were teen-agers when they watched
their music-minded father kill their mother, then turn the gun
That would be enough to make a basket case or a country
singer out of anyone.
Shelby and Allison both took the country route. These days
Allison sings with Kid Rock, while Shelby branches into pop,
jazz, blues, rock, roots, swing and then some.
Lynne's ninth disc, Identity Crisis, is better than
2000's stilted and over-praised I Am Shelby Lynne. In
other words, anyone who liked the latter is likely to love the
former. "Telephone," "10 Rocks," "If
I Were Smart," "I'm Alive" and "Lonesome"
are diverse and addictive, while the standout, "Gotta Be
Better," contains a breathless vocal passage that almost
Overall, Identity Crisis displays a relaxed,
authentic intensity that goes beyond country and on into the
realm of popular song. It's like stumbling into some out-of-the-way
roadhouse and finding a crackerjack local band with big-city
Owen: Twelve Arrows.
Judith Owen's Twelve Arrows
Judith Owen's husband is bass-playing actor Harry Shearer, storied
star of "This is Spinal Tap," "A Mighty Wind,"
"Waiting for Guffman" and more. A relaxed and smiling
Shearer even filled in as Owen's bassist for a pair of October
And, except for widespread popularity, Owen seems
to have it all: eloquent songs, expressive piano, gorgeous voice,
spirited restraint. Her cheeky British charm provides uproarious
between-song stories that give vivid context to the mature subject
matter of the songs.
But even without the context, Owen's recent album
is an apt reflection of her adept affinity for words and music.
Remove the overwrought duet with Julia Fordham and Twelve Arrows
starts out with an elegant six-song study in pop, gospel and
several variations of barrelhouse jazz.
"Walking the Dog," "You're Not Here
Anymore" and "Some Arrows Go In Deep" are unusually
fine, while "Poseidon," the album-ending duet with Richard
Thompson, recalls the pure beauty of traditional Welsh folk.
If further testament is needed, Dave Frishberg,
Portland's patriarch of songwriting and jazz piano, took in one
of the local shows. Clearly, although Owen might be a little short
on listeners (fewer than 100 attended the two Portland shows),
she has plenty to say.
But maybe it all goes to show what happens to the
ones with the high-profile kin. Because sometimes even the best
voices get lost in the din.