By the company you keep. If that's how we're judged, consider the lineup on Joe Henry's latest, Scar. Me'shell Ndegeocello on bass, Marc Ribot on guitar, Brian Blade on drums, Brad Mehldau on piano. Each a monster. Each a bandleader in his or her own right. And that's not to mention the legendary Ornette Coleman, who performs open-heart surgery on the disc's opening cut, "Richard Pryor Addresses A Tearful Nation".
In case it needs saying, this is not your alt-country Joe Henry. But that shouldn't be news. On 1996's Trampoline, Henry signaled a move away from rootsy territory with drum loops, sampled arias and Helmet guitarist Page Hamilton's art-skronk playing. Moving along the same trajectory, 1999's Fuse had precisely one acoustic guitar track, opting for a more urbane vibe that crossed Kenny Burrell's blues-inflected jazz with Curtis Mayfield funk. Joe Henry was heading uptown.
That he has arrived there with Scar seems nonetheless to have surprised some of the Henry faithful. Perhaps it's the razor-toting tango of "Stop" (which sis-in-law Madonna retooled as "Don't Tell Me"). Or the elegant samba of "Struck", with its gliding strings and deceptive calm. Maybe it's Mehldau's glorious stride piano and the gramophone feel it gives to "Cold Enough To Cross".
My suspicion is it's not so much a lack of roots as it is the absence of rock that some find challenging. For while Trampoline was indeed a stretch; it still had Hamilton's guitar all over it. Blaxploitation references and a Jacob Dylan singalong likewise gave Fuse plenty of rock roadsigns to follow.
Scar, on the other hand, is a truly ravishing work whose formal resources happen to fall outside the rock context. But then Henry has always been one to shed a skin and move on.