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Joe Henry | Scar (Mammoth)
If the two great literary Raymonds, Chandler and Bradbury, had collaborated they would have created Joe Henry. Infinitely cool, maddeningly enigmatic, dark, brooding and tough when required. He'd turn up in your town like a harbinger and every word he uttered would be precisely measured for maximum impact and delivered with a slight curtness to show he suffered no fools. Incredibly, this man exists and here's his eighth album. Being Joe, it's nothing like his last, 'Fused', that had an experimental feel, full of loops and trickery. This is less jagged, more rounded, smooth even. He hasn't left the mean streets though, he just walks to a jazz soundtrack. The sultry Richard Pryor Addresses A Tearful Nation saunters in and Joe emerges from the shadows to sigh "sometimes I think I've almost fooled myself" and you can almost see the garbage strewn road, bathed in yellow streetlights, that he wanders. He bids farewell with a resigned "excuse me while I disappear" before the darkness envelopes him again and the syncopating, almost cha-cha beat of Stop clatters in. The words may sound familiar, but not the sneery, drawled delivery or the gypsy strings that echo down from a few blocks over. Then it hits you, he's lured you in, gained your trust and now he lets you have it with those Henry lines that make you gasp, served up with an undercurrent of venom. "As if I don't remember how your face fell into mine," he sings of the Mean Flower who once loved him, "notice how I vanish and your world remains." He's not happy and even the light Spanish guitar that haunts Struck can't raise his spirits as he lies in the gloom of a dingy apartment. Like Philip Marlowe he trusts no-one, especially heartless women, "you left me with everything knowing it would never be enough" he snarls. Clearly, love don't live here anymore and this is a man who's seen too much in his time. The late night diner sound of Lock And Key gives way to the crosstown traffic of Nico Lost One Small Buddha, all flashing neon and taillight intense. The new dawn of Cold Enough To Cross doesn't even bring happiness, just more reflection of where it all went wrong amid wartime horns and tinkling piano. Maybe the answers lie in Edgar Bergen with its whispers, swooping violins and brooding percussion. An argument gone too far perhaps, as "from across the room she mouths words so that I can see" and when she asks who the title character is his response is a clipped "don't start with me." Tension bubbles under the surface and when "that bird of yours just bit me and all I said was hello" you know a big domestic is on the cards. The clock that is running out on this relationship ticks away on Scar until all that remains is the murmur of the wind down the alley and Ornette Coleman playing in the head of the man who walks along it.

Laurence Arnold
June-July 2001