Joe Henry Civilians (Anti-)

Though Joe Henry is still probably best known as the man behind the early-'90s classics Short Man's Room and Kindness of the World (and as Madonna's brother-in-law), since the beginning of this decade, his own recording career has taken something of a backseat to his other musical pursuits. As a producer, he's helmed various soundtrack projects (Knocked Up) and singer-songwriter records (Aimee Mann, Ani DiFranco) and has even helped revive the careers of soul veterans like Solomon Burke and Bettye LaVette. In between all that activity, he's turned in his second album for the hip Los Angeles imprint Anti-, following 2003's chaotic character study Tiny Voices. The new disc finds Henry in a more pensive and political mood, as songs like "Civil War" and "Time Is a Lion" implicitly and explicitly offer views on the current states of war and peace, love and hate. For connoisseurs of craft, Henry's writing is an absolute joy, drawing effortlessly on classic pop, roots, and folk traditions and alchemizing these various strains into a single, sweet sound. Aiding in his effort are a group of tasteful studio hands - including pianist Van Dyke Parks, guitarist Bill Frisell, and Dobro player Greg Leisz - who imbue the tracks with a warm, lived-in quality that serves to highlight Henry's sharp narratives and deceptively complex melodies. - B.M.