Let's see now, how long has it been since alt-country was claiming Joe Henry as one of its next great things? Would you believe a full decade ago, when he was hooking up with the Jayhawks on Short Man's Room and Kindness Of The World and the sonic experiments in his future weren't yet a gleam in his artistic eye? But with Trampoline, Fuse, Scar and now Tiny Voices, Henry has become master of his own brainy genre, one that weds the fiercest, most private poetry to edgy sound pastiches incorporating everything from '70s soul and hip-hop to free jazz and avant electronics.
Having gone where no pop musician has gone before in getting half of jazz legend Ornette Coleman's classic '60s quartet to record with him -- Don Cherry on 1990's Shuffletown and the reclusive Coleman himself on 2001's Scar -- Henry hooks up on Tiny Voices with clarinetist Don Byron and trumpeter Ron Miles, best known for his work with Bill Frisell. They're on hand not to dazzle with solos, but to add to the heft and thick atmosphere of the music, which thrives on rough textures, extreme tonalities, crowded effects and, on one tune, a kind of Greek chorus of female voices.
With its minimal, seemingly unchanging melodies and ambling, decidedly unvarying tempos, Tiny Voices may present a serious challenge to Henry followers accustomed to more catchy tunes. But there's so much offbeat urgency in his battered voice and so much intrigue in his stream-of-subconscious lyrics, which range from fictional vignettes to notes from the romantic underground to a haunting meditation on war, committed fans will hang in for the full 65 minutes. "Mercy, hope, faith and love and treason/Are trump as long as darkness holds," he sings. For all the light of insight on Tiny Voices, a compelling darkness is never in any danger of fading.