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Real People

By John Brodeur

Joe Henry

Civilians (Anti)

‘Life is short, but by the grace of God, the night is long,” sings songwriter-turned-producer Joe Henry on the title track from Civilians, his first record after a four-year recording hiatus. The time off seems to have given him perspective: During the “down” time, he took home a Grammy for producing Solomon Burke’s Don’t Give Up on Me, recorded Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint, and co-composed the music for the hit comedy film Knocked Up with his friend Loudon Wainwright III. Never without fine company, that Joe Henry: Past recordings have featured Page Hamilton, Don Byron, the Jayhawks, and Ornette Coleman. But on Civilians, Henry may finally found his ideal combination of songs and musicians. With drummer Jay Bellerose and keyboard whiz Patrick Warren returning from 2003’s Tiny Voices, Henry added double-bassist David Piltch, Greg Leisz’ fluid steel-guitar work, and the needs-no-introduction tones of Bill Frisell (not to mention Van Dyke Parks, who guests on piano on two songs). The resulting album is a gorgeous world of sound; the players do understatement with aplomb, if that’s even possible.

On the writing side, Henry disappears into these fractured Americana tales in a way few others could. On “Our Song,” the album’s emotional and thematic centerpiece, Henry sings of damaged love, a topic he’s covered time and time again, but this time from the perspective of patriotism (“Somewhere in the middle there, it started badly and it’s ending wrong”), and told (sort of) from the perspective of Willie Mays, who acts as the song’s metaphor for our country’s lost innocence, so to speak.

Above all, the sound of Civilians is the key. Henry’s studio mind is now so evenly divided between performer and producer that he’s operating at a whole other plane, but his commitment to capturing the performance of an ensemble brings it all together. The tones here are so very warm, the performances personal and affecting—on “Civil War,” you can hear an office chair creak just before the felt of a drum mallet touches the cymbal. Beautifully written, performed and recorded, Civilians ranks with the year’s top releases, and is easily among Henry’s best.

Frank Sinatra

A Voice in Time: 1939-1952 (Sony Legacy)

Ten years ago, Pete Hamill came out with a book titled Why Sinatra Matters, a slim volume that cut through the singer’s posthumous hagiography and returned us to the Voice. Not surprisingly, Hamill points to Sinatra’s early-’50s recordings as the singer’s best. To my ears, what I term the “ring-a-ding-ding” period is where I lose interest. So it’s the late-Columbia and early-Capitol stuff that I yank from the shelf to remind myself how good even mediocre songs can sound when sung by a master.

Here’s a further confession, and I know I might lose you here. I like the Dorsey recordings, too. I think of them as showcasing a different singer: an ambitious kid still trying to be a tenor, honing his instrument into spectacular form.

The new Sony Legacy four-disc set starts with Sinatra’s very first records with the Harry James orchestra, and switches, on disc one, to a generous sampling of those Dorsey sides, finishing with a couple of the singer’s breakout recordings with Axel Stordahl at the podium. It’s a comprehensive and enjoyable study of a singer in progress, and by the time you reach disc two, covering 1943-49, we’re well on the way to Sinatra’s vocal maturity.

There’s a different twist to the last two discs. For disc three, subtitled “The Great American Songbook: 1943-1947,” we get early versions of “It Had to Be You,” “All of Me,” “I Get a Kick Out of You” and “One for My Baby,” all of which Sinatra rerecorded, usually quite differently. Disc four, which takes us to 1952, is styled as a preview of the Capitol sound, and is well stocked with splendid orchestrations by Stordahl, along with contributions by the unsung George Siravo, among others.

The handsome package is sized so as not to fit alongside anything else in your collection, so it demands a place of its own. But that’s OK: There’s a handsome hardcover book accompanying the set that includes essays by Will Friedwald and producers Didier C. Deutsch and Charles L. Granata.

Of the 80 songs—a somewhat short program for four CDs—11 are newly issued airchecks alongside a couple of hitherto unreleased alternate takes. The discography sports appropriate recording date-matrix number-timing info, but is short on orchestra personnel.

The remastered sound is terrific, offering superior versions of the tracks with which I’m already familiar, and the newly released material appeals to the completist in me. But I doubt I’ll ever be a Sinatra completist, so this set and the Capitol best-of set are more than satisfactory.

—B.A. Nilsson


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