Classic Americana Albums: Joe Henry “Trampoline”

Mammoth, 1996

If it wasn’t for this album, Joe Henry would be a minor footnote in any history of Americana that I might write, perhaps more memorable for being Madonna’s brother-in-law. His early records were serviceable and he gradually moved towards an Americana sound, making a couple of records with the Jayhawks as his backing band helped in this respect. He was around, I bought a couple of the records. ‘Kindness of the World‘ kicked things up a notch, it was a good record, solid with some nice flourishes. I still have it, I dip in every so often – I love ‘I Flew Over Our House Last Night‘. Henry was getting better, incrementally he was refining his sound.

And then without any clue, ‘Trampoline‘ dropped and shattered my expectations: here was something that wasn’t another evolutionary step – here was impregnated by aliens, here was something fully formed, an artistic flowering akin to Grimsby Town suddenly winning the FA Cup. Where did this come from? Well, Henry did change his process for this record, using some of the label money to build a home studio and started to experiment with samples. But still, a lot of people do this and they don’t make a great leap forward, let alone, a great record.

From the dissonance and the unusual instrumentation and the guttural ejaculation that starts ‘Bob & Ray‘ there’s a statement that shouts, this is different, no longer reliant on traditional Americana instrumentation, the structure of the songs altered but importantly the melodies are intact and the songs tell stories, pulling everything together. The ending of the song is superb: once the vocals fade the guitars come up, shrouded in strings, and god knows what else, the song really ends rather than just running out of steam.

Ohio Air Show Plane Crash‘ is Henry on more stable ground – take away the echoing percussion and you could have a cut from previous albums. Importantly though, as the song stretches out, the central rhythm figures persist, and other elements churn around it like ingredients of a stew breaking the surface. It builds slyly slowly, notching up the intensity, the buttons on the Hulk’s shirt straining but never breaking. I find myself surrendering to the rhythm with my head nodding – there’s a whole career for Phosphorescent in these six and a half minutes.

For a song called ‘Trampoline’ it is fitting that the drums are front and centre. Again the song retains the core values of Americana and this time the chorus, a simple repetition of the title comes though as if whispered in a dream with strings that could have come from a Hitchcock chiller. The woozy ‘Flower Girl‘ is a fever dream of a song built around a pump organ dirge and samples from a Spanish opera record. This is Henry really taking a risk and it paying off. Listening to it now it strikes me as being a companion piece to Sparklehorse, in the way that it melds classical songwriting with restless experimentation.

The cover of Sly Stone’s ‘Let Me Have It All‘ is notable for the atonal guitar from Helmet’s Page Hamilton; with itchy stuttering, it’s a world away from the safety of his earlier efforts. And again, with the benefit of hindsight, in the song you can hear the genesis of Jim White, the vocals, the circularity, the approach suggesting many of the heuristics that White has employed throughout his career. ‘Medicine’, again uses slabs of sounds rather than the intricate picking of standard country tropes, wheezing electronic drones and clattering percussion provide the basis of the songs, which may suggest Einstürzende Neubauten rather than Americana but it is testament to Henry that these elements are still in the service of the song, and even though there are squalls of angle grinder guitar, it all hangs together.

Go With God (Topless Shoeshine)‘ is more conventional with real drums and is that mandolin? It is a song that might have come from earlier records. It’s followed by the devastating ‘I Was a Playboy‘ which again starts conventionally with acoustic guitar, and Henry’s voice, which is at its best on this song, his sing-speak, suiting the narration. The real hero of this song are the strings – the acoustic guitar keeps the time, the strings soar and swoop like swifts busy with nest building, and as Henry’s voice shows a lothario’s heartbreak, a trombone of all things trumpets the sadness. The finale ‘Parade‘ brings in Eric Heywood’s pedal steel and as a counterpoint to the electronics, they blend beautifully.

For the follow-up ‘Fuse‘, Dr Dre was pencilled in to produce and despite it continuing the experimentation of ‘Trampoline‘  it never really took off. Henry then pivoted again with ‘Scar‘ towards jazz and soul. My interest had by now waned and has not been reignited by anything since. The early records were a gradual move towards Americana, a honing of his craft. ‘Trampoline’ is a definite standout not just for him but for what is possible within the genre. It is telling that all that remains in my collection are ‘Kindness of the World‘ and ‘Trampoline‘ Here at Americana-UK we’ve always looked towards rewarding music that pushes the genre forward – that’s exactly what Henry did with this album, and it rightly finds a slot in our Classics of the genre.

About David Cowling 142 Articles
Punk rock, Go-Betweens, REM, Replacments, Husker Du, Minutemen, Will Oldham, Smog, Whiskeytown, Ass Ponys but probably most of all Howe Gelb, led me on this journey.
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Great choice and great review! Nice to see Joe Henry getting some love. I have all 12 of Joe Henry’s albums going back to 1992. You do seem to be downplaying everything since Trampoline, but in my humble opinion, each and every album is an absolute treasure. I recommend Civilians (2007) after Trampoline, and then continuing through his whole catalogue. To name a few of the amazing musicians backing him on some of these records are Bill Frisell, Marc Ribot, Greg Leisz, regular drummer Jay Bellerose and a couple of memorable spot appearances by Lisa Hannigan and the Milk Carton Kids (as well as The Jayhawks on two earlier records).

Ian Strickland

Trampoline is a classic – no doubt. But don’t write off the rest of his catalogue. I discovered him on Short Man’s Room from 92 (album before Kindness of the World), and that would easily sit in my top 10 Americana albums from the 90s.