The Wheels Roll
Bruce Henderson's backing band is the New York-based High Plains Drifters, an outfit that includes Saturday Night Live's G.E Smith (the one who looks like Skeletor) on guitar and Paul Ossola (the one who looks like Thoreau) on bass. To their credit, Smith and Ossola, who never cease mugging on television, manage to keep the focus on their frontman on Henderson's debut, The Wheels Roll. The result is that Henderson's voice – kinda Dylanesque, sorta T Bone Burnettish – is surrounded by tight, rootsy playing that purrs right along, whether swaying through a delicate, mandolin-flecked waltz, swinging with a hot fiddle (George Strait should cover "Big City" immediately) or ripping through a bar-band rocker.
But the thing that wants to matter most here is the songs. In fact, hidden behind the disc's easy, rootsy sound is the heart of a real singer-songwriter. A transplanted Oklahoman, Henderson opens the album with "Feet Of Clay". "Nerves of steel, feet of clay," he admits, "I fall in love, then walk away," and the remainder of The Wheels Roll is primarily devoted to circling this theme – the failures of will that can doom our relationships – from a variety of perspectives. Backed by mournful accordion, one song features a stubborn man who finds himself alone and "swimming through the ashes of the bridges I have burned," while the guy in "White Lines/Blacktop", a great Keith Richards-style rocker, has decided to swallow his pride and get his ass back on home where it belongs. Now and then, Henderson's lyrics can turn out to be silly and too clever, as in "I cried so hard I thought my face would rust" (I hear those metal faces'll do that on you), but more regularly they are cleverly revealing, as in "You want a house of love/I want a mobile home."
Not everything works, especially in the disc's second half. "I Can Drive" and the title track are the kind of bar-band roots-rock that cooks up right in a club, no doubt, but comes off like a pedestrian Joe Ely at home in your living room. Cloying and trying too hard, "Texas or New Mexico" edges into Dan Fogleberg territory. Mainly, though, The Wheels Roll is a fine debut, filled with smart, well-played roots rock.
Beyond The Pale
Beyond the Pale is the sort of album that musically seems to disappear into the atmosphere of the bar it might be playing at, but which actually defines and shapes that atmosphere. It demands close scrutiny, especially lyrical scrutiny. The bent is decidedly rootsy and country-rockish, but Henderson seems more influenced by Bob Dylan (and, consequently, Woody Guthrie) than his commercial country-pop brethren, which is not to say that he eschews pop altogether. Beyond the Pale is full of melodies with teeth that are much more distinctive than they first seem. Though sneaky, there are plenty of hooks on the album, but they are hooks that necessitate repeated listening before they begin to sink in. The playing is not at all plodding, but assured and easy. Twangy, reverbed, electric guitars are superimposed over finger-picked acoustic guitars. Accordian pops up on "Flatlands" and "Wash It Away," and there is occasional mandolin and banjo touches. The album would sit comfortably beside (or at least nearby) efforts by the Wallflowers and John Mellencamp. Henderson displays a lyrical and melodic acuity (as well as a melancholy streak) similar to Jakob Dylan (check out the wonderful "Bone Tired"), while his themes are pure country desolation and grief, filled with nowhere towns where nothing happens, drunken nights, and ill-fated relationships. "Speed Rack" features the sort of weezing organ you here on mid-'60s Dylan albums courtesy of Al Kooper, and includes the immortal couplet, "I've never loved another woman/but then again I don't love you," which goes a long way in setting the general mood of the album. The loneliness of the characters about which Henderson writes have empty spaces in their lives that have been there so long they have become permanent, holes that cannot be peopled no matter how hard they try to make human connections. Sadness is inevitable in this world. Henderson's warble, caught half-way between Dylan and Mark Knopfler, adds a world-weary quality to the music that is real and sincere. Yet, as bleak as it may seems and as powerfully as those themes resonate, there is also a sense on Beyond the Pale that Henderson is turning country cliches on their head, making playful jest of "my-woman-left-me-and-my-dog-died" stereotypes. The music is not overtly gloomy, though it is certainly moody. Yet it is a moodiness that lets listeners in, if not to make them share that feeling than at least to help them understand it.