Phil Henry should have been born Irish. With a bit of brogue and a tie-in to the IRA, Hold Up could have been one of those folk hero songs covered by bands like Silly Wizard and the Moving Hearts and even the traditional folk bands like The Clancy Brothers, though their time is sadly past. Alas, Henry is American and the song is destined for Americana, genre-wise, at a time when it seems ninety percent of modern music falls into that category. It is a shame, for Hold Up is one of the better Americana tracks I've heard in the past few years, plucked banjo and acoustic guitar played on the upper strings before adding full guitar and mandolin on a chorus you hear only on songs about legends. In the US, it was at various times Dillinger and Bonnie & Clyde and the James Gang—the small guys, blown out of proportion by hard times and a media ready to toss aside truth for circulation. Well, here is a small guy waiting at the bank, "last in line with a .45", crushed by the weight of responsibilities and forced to do something regrettable. The refrain, with fitting background chorus, goes:
Now this is
I take liberty to separate the lines so that it better fits the rhythm for the rhythm is crucial and, oh, that background. Simple 'oh's in stretched out form, the harmonies pure grandeur in a not so grand setting. To be worn down to that point. There but for the grace of God…
I know Henry from 2005's No Place Like Here, an album which showed a lot of promise and which today stands on its own. But Robots and Romance? Momma, how our little boy has grown. Diving in with an almost literary vision, Henry lays out stories in a personal but not so personal way, subjects cinematic in their diversity yet connected. Hold Up—hard times and desperate measures; Open Range—a wish of dying, or rather the manner of dying; Dig Our Way Out—a snowbound metaphor for the trials of relationships; My Old Heart—heart surgery on a variety of levels; Dear Noreen—a letter to a wife from a miner trapped with five others. All dramatic, all cinematic, all very well done.
As with No Place Like Here, there are no throwaways or fillers. All songs stand on their own, some more than others, but that probably depends upon who is listening. These songs, impersonal as they may seem from the outside, are very personal. At times, it is like hearing a movie—just a scene, but we've all seen enough to fill in the blanks. There is a kind of magic in that—to write a vivid scene with music. Henry has it.
The biggest difference between No Place and Robots is the growth in Phil Henry himself. Play the albums one after the other and you can feel more of a purpose, more of a focus. I attribute part of that to his relatively new wife, Allison, who has anchored a guy who thought he already was anchored. The rest is all Phil Henry.
I will also throw in a note about production. Henry stepped out a bit and wrote with more of a universal feel than he did in the past and it shows in the excellent use of background vocals. If there was anything missing from No Place, it was harmony. Sure, it was there, but in very small doses. He makes up for it here, allowing full choral harmonies on a handful of songs and making them much the better. I will never be able to hear Hold Up or Dear Noreen in my head without that full echoing sound of the choral background. It makes a world of difference.
Edited by: David N. Pyles
Copyright 2010, Peterborough Folk Music Society.
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