Blood from Stars is the album Joe Henry's been getting at since Scar. He's worked with jazz musicians often, but he's never made a record that employs the form so prominently. His band includes Marc Ribot, Patrick Warren, Jay Bellerose, David Pilch, and now his son Levon on saxophones and clarinet, as well as vibist Keefus Ciancia. Engineer Ryan Freeland is as important as the players: he managed to give this record its strange yet welcoming sound. It begins with the short "Prelude," played by Jason Moran. It introduces all the characters here, with a note or two here, a chord flourish there. Some are immediately identifiable; others you've never met before and perhaps hope never to. Henry's love of traditional jazz has blossomed -- the album sprawls over history, genre, and song forms, but there is no consciously retro aspect in its presentation and it is not a jazz album. Many of these songs are based on the blues (and even folk-blues); some are standards-style pop; some walk out the jazz of New Orleans, St. Louis, and Kansas City from the early 20th century; some even rock -- a little. Many are dressed in horn arrangements and offbeat sounds that seem to enter in from the rafters. They drift in and out and are allowed to play a part in the songs. Who cannot relate to the swinging blues (à la "St. James Infirmary") led by piano, upright bass, acoustic guitar, and a minimal trap kit? The music seems to come from antiquity in "The Man I Keep Hid," but Henry's voice is right firmly in the historical present: his protagonist voices his desires and how they are thwarted -- usually by himself -- as horns, organs, piano, and rhythm section swell and offer the chaos just under the surface of the singer's voice.
"Channel" follows it, a love song about disorder that is played as anything but. Henry's character asks simple questions that offer significant difficulties in his inner world, but he embraces them: "I want my story straight/But all the others bend/From wondrous to strange/To beauty at the end...." It's a haunting melody that would be -- if we had them anymore -- a parlor song. Both songs reflect something lost and hidden in the wires and satellites of modern life: that individuals -- no matter how lost, determined, angry, displaced, hopeful, or praying for redemption at any cost -- still have human voices that speak, at least on the inside, constantly. Musical traditions bend and blend into and through one another and are painted by the sounds Freeland allowed to enter from the ghosts in the walls, the ceilings, or up from the floorboards. "Death to the Storm" reveals this better than just about any track here, a simple blues with Ribot's electric guitar weaving through Henry's lines and phrases about characters -- including the protagonist, who could have come from Steinbeck, Dos Passos, or O'Connor. "Bellwether" -- another early 20th century jazz-blues -- is a modern tale of Sisyphus. He's climbing a hill, digging a well, changing his name, leaving his shame, etc., until the story gets better. Ultimately, Blood from Stars is the most sophisticated, redemptive, and romantic album Henry's cut; the love songs are simply raggedly breathtaking. It reflects an America that wasn't so much lost as consciously wiped away near the end of the 20th century. Its remnants still live, however, in the shadows of memory, and in the broken-hearted ghosts that continue to haunt its landscape and atmosphere, and sometimes even its people. Henry welcomes them, lending his voice to theirs in of all these songs.