Country Singer John Henry
Joe Henry Trampoline (Mammoth)Joe Henry knows his place.Being a part-folkie, vaguely country, sorta' rockin' singer- songwriter, he's got a room in that purgatory reserved for the great, underappreciated likes of Guy Clark, Nanci Griffith and Robert Earl Keen. It's a comfortable enough spot, but it's a prison. Because no matter how good you are, you're fated to a career of five-figure record sales and three-figure concert audiences. And critical adoration, which probably gets more annoying than anything after awhile.Yeah, after a half-dozen acclaimed albums that went aluminum and years of playing bars and small clubs, Joe knows his place. Well enough to understand that there's no way out of it.But that doesn't mean he can't demolish the joint. Then invite in some friends and some lunatics to play around in the rubble with him.Trampoline is the soundtrack to this weird party -- half-wake for the old Joe Henry, half-Bar Mitzvah for the new one. Henry's latest album is no less an attempt to deconstruct, then reconstruct an artistic space than Bob Dylan's Blonde on Blonde, Sly and the Family Stone's There's A Riot Goin' On, and Nirvana's In Utero. It's a rebirth that, like those other records, can't help but be disturbing because it involves some self-mutilation.And because for all its violence and dark ambiguity, Trampoline still manages to be so damn beautiful.The first cut introduces us to Trampoline's strange yet fluent concoction of instruments -- a zither and wall of guitars, acoustic and electric, later joined by trombone, organ, goat bells, barbershop quartet and "machinery." And to our guide -- a stumbling, slow-motion hip-hop groove that simultaneously keeps the record on track and off-balance.The first voice is a brief, muffled outburst -- maybe a cackle, maybe a scream, maybe just a burp. Then you can start making out words, and things get even more vague and unsettling.About all you can count on from Trampoline is catastrophe. Disaster coming, disaster happening, or disaster being recovered from, with the understanding that it will soon strike again. Henry's characters are so familiar with tragedy that during "Ohio Air Show Plane Crash," they can only laugh or admire the arc of the doomed pilot. Hope, or some withered remnant of it, also plays a recurring role. But hope isn't there to balance disaster, so much as to add flavor to it. And to revel in its own foolishness, as in the title cut's mantra, "This time I'm not coming down/This time I'm not coming down..."While that brand of escapism may seem childish, Henry makes it clear it's his only alternative to the brutal malaise "Flower Girl" delivers. This tale of fools and the revenge they take on each other is calmly narrated over a carnival melody slowed to a dirge, punctuated by bizarre, operatic yelps. The fat lady isn't singing here, she's screaming bloody murder.Like all good horror storytellers, Joe knows when to give his listeners a breather. So after "Flower Girl," he lets us up for some air and a dance with a funky Sly Stone cover. But just as things are loosening up, you start to notice that the song's simple refrain, "let me have it all," has taken on eight or nine possible meanings, only one or two of them good. Then Helmet's Page Hamilton slowly cocoons the song in fuzz guitar, suffocating everything inside.What comes out the other end for Trampoline's second half is as much vulture as butterfly. There's a love song to a corpse; the junkie's alibi "Medicine," which soars and swoons in self-mocking bombast, as if Leonard Cohen were karaokeing Black Sabbath. "Go With God" parenthesizes its title with (Topless Shoeshine) and climaxes with the line, "We shouldn't waste one moment's grief/I mean what else we going to leave the kids?"The gorgeous string arrangement of "I Was A Playboy" threatens uplift. But Joe keeps tugging at it with lines like, "I was a playboy/And you just a plaything to me" until the music is forced to bow down into a Mexican lament, all the more beautiful for its ability to absorb the lyrics and maintain its dignity.That reluctant but weirdly perfect alliance between twisted lyrics and warped music holds throughout Trampoline. Henry and co-producer Patrick McCarthy recorded the album in Joe's garage studio in L.A., where Henry recently relocated. In the process, they have succeeded in making a record that samples each of the city's almost endless array of musical neighborhoods while honoring the sticky mix of fantasy and dread that holds them together.There's the insistent, deranged rhythms of N.W.A. right alongside the doomed longings of the Byrds and Jackson Browne, the Doors' pathology peppered with Los Lobos' barrio stylings, Ricky Nelson's flights of fancy competing for space on the same surfboard as Dick Dale's giddy caterwauls to hell, the baleful sincerity of X couched in the gonzo virtuosity of Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart, Guns 'n' Roses' reactionary rage debating Tom Waits' whimsical decay, while Dwight Yoakum's bitterwise twang ducks in and out of Linda Ronstadt's blasts of "why-the-hell-not" delirium.And to hold it all together, the production wizardry of Brian Wilson and Phil Spector; in its own spare way, Trampoline is about as close as it gets to the devious beauty of Wilson and the Beach Boys'Pet Sounds--which was about as close as anybody ever got to Spector's mythic "wall of sound."But Henry's musical influences seem more like ghosts than friends on Trampoline. And ultimately, they're just escorts for his lyrical demons--the particularly nasty, clever kind that emerge when a man runs into a dead-end he realizes he was fated to.Joe Henry seems in no hurry to exorcise all these poltergeists. He wants to hang out with them for awhile, let them check out his place, get their help with redecorating.