It would be nice if songwriter Joe Henry, who won a Grammy for last year's Solomon Burke masterpiece Don't Give Up On Me, were finally breaking into the mainstream. More likely, his ideas will seep into the marketplace of sound like those of other artists - Daniel Lanois, T-Bone Burnett, Brian Eno - who seem destined to produce hits for others while their own work, however brilliant, remains something for Those in the Know.

Tiny Voices further refines the distinctive sonic vision Henry began pursuing on 1996's Trampoline: Songs coalesce mysteriously, densely layered with elements that are sometimes hard to pick out, sometimes - as with Don Byron's clarinet here, or Ornette Coleman's sax on the last record - hitting the ear like a spice that can't be buried in the stew. Byron is one of the jazz musicians Henry has been drawn to lately, seeking not to make a jazz record but to incorporate that improvisational sense into what, for lack of a better term, is a "pop" recording. Made in all of five days, the tracks of Tiny Voices started as skeletons and took form as they were performed.

Tiny Voices
(Anti-/Epitaph Records)
Those skeletons, though, are important. Henry's cinematic stories are fragments of weird fiction depicting, say, a maid's kid who fights off molestation in the shallow end of the hotel pool. Elsewhere, as in "Your Side of the World," what seems like elegantly efficient scene setting (of a man caught in a house fire, of factory workers under the boss' eye) is transmuted into something more cryptic. This album is less concerned than some of its predecessors with making these scenes into easily recognizable songs, although the sounds and images certainly gel - if not into a groove, then as a roomful of smoke revealing just as much of the story as the lyricist wants to show. •

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