Scar (Mammoth)

Joe Henry 

Scar (Mammoth)

It feels wrong to look a gift horse in the mouth when the horse is the gifted Joe Henry. But maybe now that Henry's writing credit on sister-in-law Madonna's "Don't Tell Me" (included on Scar as the barely recognizable tango "Stop") is earning him some royalties, the closer examination won't hurt. Scar begs scrutiny but doesn't always reward it. In attempting to perfect the unique advances of his past two albums, Henry instead has repeated himself, perhaps revealing his limits as a self-producer.

On the strength of a decade's worth of fine songwriting and, particularly, his past two albums, brooding but ultimately rewarding curveballs that split Henry semipermanently from country-rock, the singer is now able to recruit a brilliant stable of sidemen. Halfway through the opening "Richard Pryor Addresses a Tearful Nation," for instance, Henry hands the reins to Ornette Coleman, whose scathing, atonal saxophone becomes Pryor as Greek chorus -- angry, off-balance, improvised but sturdy as bedrock. Prolific, glamorously troubled Brad Mehldau is an equally inspired bit of casting. His piano and Marc Ribot's guitar are more than pick-up work for hip name-checks; their contributions prove Henry a bandleader capable of making his guests collaborators without overindulging them.

If Henry hasn't overbudgeted the arrangements or his husky sonics, what keeps Scar from surpassing 1999's Fuse and 1996's Trampoline is the way his own patterns are indulged. Scar, from its one-word title and the bitter whimsy of its song titles and their narrators to the structure of the album itself, plays like a sequel to Fuse rather than a real step forward. The major difference is that this time, the slow songs outnumber and overpower those that infuse Henry's recent love of groove with his sardonic wit. "Mean Flower" is similar to Fuse's title song, adding a funereal New Orleans horn section. Fuse's instrumental intermission "Curt Flood" was as unexpected and witty as its title, a rock instrumental that didn't feel like a wordless scrap. But Scar's "Nico Lost One Small Buddha" is just murky, and its inclusion further damages the precariously paced Scar. "Rough and Tumble" has lyrics but sounds like a less-winning take on "Curt Flood."

Across eight albums, Henry has enjoyed two makeovers that, unlike his sister-in-law's calculated reversals, were largely accidental. His first album, 1986's Talk of Heaven, disappeared quickly in a crossfire of tepid reviews. (Despite Henry's disdain for it, it has since been reissued.) Shuffletown would have been a great debut had it not been Henry's third disc; even so, it's a fully realized chance to start over. Two respected albums backed by the Jayhawks followed before Henry emerged again as a home-recording son-of-a-gun with Trampoline, just in time for the sound he was making to achieve quasi-popularity without him. But Trampoline, and later Fuse, make most of what Henry did before, and most of what those around him were doing, sound -- musically, not lyrically -- quaint. There are enough good songs on Scar (two or three are as brilliant as Fuse's best numbers) to relieve worries that Henry has stagnated. But too often, Trampoline and Fuse also reach forward to make Scar seem boring. Though it suffers only by comparison with those albums, Scar is a disappointment, the side effect of an experiment repeated once too often after already succeeding.

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