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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Back now with DAY TO DAY.

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BRAND: Joe Henry is a sought-after Los Angeles-based producer for such artists as Aimee Mann, Allen Toussaint and Elvis Costello.

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BRAND: After four years of helping other artists fulfill their artistic visions, Joe Henry has finally managed to complete one more of his own.

Music journalist Christian Bordal recently sat down with Joe Henry to talk about his latest CD titled "Civilians."

CHRISTIAN BORDAL: Joe Henry is the kind of grown-up musical craftsman that enjoys the high opinion of many music critics, but does pretty modest numbers are on iTunes. His dense, poetic lyrics and low-key delivery make listeners work in a way that's become anathema commercial programming.

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Mr. JOE HENRY (Producer, Singer, "Civilians"): (Singing) If you fear the angels above while you sleep, then I'll be the blood you paint on your door. You're dreaming the world that's nothing will keep but time is the story and there will be more, you're dreaming the words that nothing will keep...

BORDAL: Henry says the centerpiece of his latest record is a somber, political tune called "Our Song." It opens with the narrator, catching sight of Willie Mays and overhearing the great center fielder complaining to his wife about what his country has become.

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Mr. HENRY: (Singing) I saw Willie Mays and a Scotsdale Home Depot, looking at garage store springs at the far end of the 14th row. His wife stood there beside him. She was quiet and they both were proud...

And even though it's one of the last songs I wrote before the sessions, it seemed to throw a different light on everything else I had in my bag at the time. I started to see - well, if I put this song at the center of the record or if it's anywhere on the record, it makes this song sound different. It's sort of bold in it, you know, political assertion in a way that I would never have allowed in the past.

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Mr. HENRY: (Singing) ...this was my country, this was my song somewhere in the middle there, so he started badly ended, ending wrong...

BORDAL: Not only singer and songwriter, Joe Henry is also his own producer. And on his last record, "Tiny Voices," he said he wanted the production to be an active player on the stage. Using a bigger band anchored around jazzman Don Byron's roar-hooting bass clarinet, Henry played very deliberately with the mix and sounds to create an unusual sonic landscape.

Mr. HENRY: And "Civilians," there's no less deliberate but I had hoped to create the sensation that there was no production going on at all. You are not looking through an idea to a song, but you were hopefully seduced into believing you were looking straight at a song, you know, with no mediating idea and thus kind of create a sense of real emotional clarity.

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Mr. HENRY: (Singing)...where's my sock, where's my other shoe? I didn't know what time it was when I came to, and only light that's in here is my flickering TV...

BORDAL: As a producer, Henry has worked with other indie artists like Ani DiFranco and Aimee Mann. But he's also produced records for a growing list of old school soul and R & B performers, like Bettye Lavette, Allen Toussaint and Solomon Burke who won a Grammy for the album they made together, called "Don't Give Up on Me." At first glance, these might seem like odd bedfellows. But Henry says he doesn't do anything differently when working with a soul artist.

Mr. HENRY: Nobody, you know, should pledge allegiance to a musical dress code as far as the genre of music. But I think, any music that survives for any length of time is - and by its nature is soulful, whether that's Edith Piaf or George Jones,, or Hank Williams, or Muddy Waters, you know? Anybody who we keep going back to, there is something that is undeniably soulful about what they're doing and, you know, that's always what I'm after.

BORDAL: But the songs that many of these soulful artists have an emotional directness that is sometimes lacking in Henry's own work. His lyrics, in particular, are very well written but often obscure in a way that can limit their emotional punch.

Every now and again, I wanted to lift the veil for a moment to break out, meet his listener halfway, draw us a little closer to the characters that inhabit his songs. That said, I do recommend that you take the time and effort to enjoy "Civilians." It's the product of a songwriter and producer at the top of his game.

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Mr. HENRY: (Singing) Pray for you, pray for me, sing it like the song, life is short but by the grace of God the night is long.

BRAND: Christian Bordal is an independent music journalist and a frequent contributor to DAY TO DAY. He reviewed the CD, "Civilians" by Joe Henry.

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Mr. HENRY: (Singing) ...backroom stalls, boys smoke in their cars, the general, he's in civilian clothes, standing at the bar, he waits till the (unintelligible) flower lady comes on, (unintelligible) me, sweetheart, he draws the napkin battle plan, then this is where we start. Pray for you, pray for me...

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BRAND: DAY TO DAY is a production of NPR News with contributions from Slate.com. I'm Madeleine Brand.

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