For some years now the Henrys have been one of my stock answers to the question, “What’s your favourite band?” Since they’re celebrating their 21st anniversary with this week’s release of their first album since 2009, it’s probably time I wrote something about them.
I say “them”, but the Henrys are really Don Rooke, a resourceful guitarist and songwriter, with a floating group of like-minded musicians gathered at his base in Toronto. Rooke will be known to some people for his contributions to the regrettably slender discography of the elusive singer-songwriter Mary Margaret O’Hara, an authentic genius whose sole full-length album, Miss America, and two London concerts around 25 years ago are still vivid in the memory.
MMO’H appears as a guest on earlier Henrys records — Puerto Angel (1994), Chasing Grace (1996), Desert Cure (1997), Joyous Porous (2002), and Is This Tomorrow (2009) — and if you click on http://www.thehenrys.ca/listen.html and scroll down down to “God Moves on the Water”, you’ll hear one of their finest moments together. But she’s not on the new one. The lead singing on Quiet Industry is done by Gregory Hoskins, with John Sheard on pump and electric organ, Hugh Marsh on violin, Jonathan Goldsmith on “muted piano”, Andrew Downing on bass, Davide DiRenzo on drums, and Tara Dunphy on backing vocals.
The music of the Henrys has what always seems to me to be a typically Canadian quality: like that of the Band and the Cowboy Junkies, or the musicians who used to travel with the McGarrigle sisters, it sounds as though it’s being played in your front room by musicians who wouldn’t be put out if you asked them to swap instruments. I don’t know a better way of describing the sense of ease that lubricates their creativity.
The tone may be set by the timbres of a slide guitar, a pump organ and drums that sound like they were made from a set of well-travelled cardboard suitcases from the 1930s, but the music isn’t revivalist or retrospective in any way. It’s devised and directed by a person who seems to have spent a lifetime cultivating good listening habits and distilling them into a personal vision of the way things might sound.
So while the noise the Henrys make is full of creaks and sighs, these are an indication of carefully chosen textures rather than of an attempt to counterfeit the patina of age. Rooke himself, an unassuming virtuoso on various kinds of guitars, including a Weissenborn koa-wood model, has a better command of acoustic sonorities than just about any guitarist I can think of, along with an absolute disinclination to show off. About a dozen years ago he made an album of instrumental pieces under his own name called Atlas Travel, also highly recommended.
Rooke has excellent taste in singers (Becca Stevens was also featured on Is This Tomorrow), and Hoskins, a veteran of the Canadian folk-rock scene, has a sidelong, semi-private delivery that suits the songs almost as well as O’Hara’s more gestural approach once did. And these are really beautiful songs. Once you get past the exquisitely detailed settings, like the dancing organ on “Was Is” and the shadowy doubled vocal on “Burn the Boat”, there are many things to admire in the finely turned melodies and the thoughtful lyrics, such as this payoff verse from “Dangers of Travel”, a great edge-of-breakup song: “The light is pretty now / But soon it will fade / So put the bags down / Please put the bags down / Your dinner’s been made.”
Here’s a film they made to go with the album’s opening track, “The Weaker One”. Here’s a clip of “When That Far Shore Disappears”, a song that illustrates some of their subtler virtues. And as a bonus, here they are in an earlier incarnation, playing a piece called “VF61” from Joyous Porous on an Ontario TV station in 2002, with David Pilch on bass and Michael White on trumpet.
There’s a special strength, intimacy and sense of proportion to this music, along with great inventiveness. Quiet Industry may be the product of the Henrys’ 21st year, but it’s a great place to start. And they’re still one of the answers to that question.
* Pictured above, the Henrys as heard on their new album: (left to right) John Sheard, Don Rooke, Gregory Hoskins and Andrew Downing.