Joe Henry Borderline, London

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The Independent Culture
Picture a Montana hick town, or an outpost in the California desert; the sky bruised, the ghostly whine of a distant railroad train on tracks no longer used. Maybe Harry Dean Stanton is stumbling, lost and broken- hearted, somewhere in the dark, but in the only bar in town the man you'd find elucidating this murky scene of the everyday surreal would be Joe Henry. Not quite country, or folk, or rock 'n' roll, but a loose, smoky amalgamation of the three. Henry uses an eccentric literacy to throw together songs about impossible hopes and dashed dreams, delivered in a laid-back drawl like a hungrier Dylan, a cooler Tom Waits (or even Petty). But if Henry's songs are the slow-burn kind, Thursday night's set was, too. Usually flanked by The Jayhawks, the backing on this occasion included Throwing Muses' David Narcizo on drums and a malevolent Val Doonican lookalike, Mike Russell, on bass - still, the set's first half was muddy, tinny and anxiously busy, which doesn't suit Henry's often skeletal arrangements and languid, world-weary vocal. With "Flower Girl", a discordant waltz of virtuoso melancholy, the mix came right, pump-organ keyboards and bare guitar creaking a sombre, skewed soundscape. "Ohio Air Show Plane Crash" was Henry at his hypnotic finest, a bittersweet, slo-mo snapshot of a relationship's end as, overhead, a soaring plane (steel guitar whining an ominous drone) noses into a dive and crashes in flames. A skinny, Michigan- born slugger whose tough, tender way with words has earned comparison with Raymond Carver, Henry is that rare thing, a lyricist who can make what he has to say about love sound new, the whole deal the more painful because it's so offhand. He's a little-known worker in the shadows, though the album he's touring, Trampoline, is his sixth, and his connections - he's Madonna's brother-in-law - could have been capitalised on.

The LP's perfect title track gives you the self-effacing flavour - "I don't miss you half as much/ As who you made me think I was". When he goes rock-out reverb on "Let Me Have It All" he's a psychedelic troubadour; when he laments on "Bob & Ray", he's the most plaintive of poets. Henry's sensuous, sardonic words take you on a bumpy ride from which you may not return quite the same. After 10 patient years, he's on his way up, and, as he explains on "Trampoline", "This time I'm not coming down."