Joe Henry is slowing down in middle age–not creatively, just rhythmically. Each of the six releases from his first incarnation, as a singer-songwriter-roots-rocker, included a few uptempo barn burners, e.g. “King’s Highway,” the square-danceable Jim Thompson-esque murder ballad on 1992’s Short Man’s Room, or the heartbreakingly joyful cover of the Carter Family’s “Hello Stranger” on the ’94 EP Fireman’s Wedding. The second, more urbane phase of Henry’s career began with 1996’s Trampoline, a dark, tricky, unclassifiable collection of songs that set off an unending stream of critical comparisons to Tom Waits. (The validity of these is strictly demographic: Henry sounds nothing like Waits, but Waits fans would buy Henry’s records if they knew what was good for them.) His next two albums, Fuse (1999) and Scar (2001), contained a mix of midtempo white-funk numbers and slow-burning existential torch songs. On the new one, Tiny Voices (Anti-), Henry drops the funk but carries the torch to new heights with torpid, lushly produced lounge numbers (arranged for pop rhythm section plus clarinet and trumpet) that could be called smooth jazz if that term weren’t already reserved for FM workplace anesthetic. Always a melancholic lyricist, Henry has now become positively grim. On paper the cumulative gloom of his allusive rhymes sometimes threatens to go over the top (“This is what we make of this / The walls all smell like blood and piss / And every book that comes our way / We burn to keep the dogs away”); in practice it’s tempered by Henry’s reserved, nearly conversational vocal style and the somber beauty of the musical settings. Henry introduced several of these songs to Chicago at a tour de force concert at Steppenwolf Theatre in May; they sounded great, but if that show was any indication, he’s no longer playing any pre-Trampoline material. The Zincs open on Tuesday, David Singer on Wednesday. Tuesday and Wednesday, October 14 and 15, 9 PM, Schubas, 3159 N. Southport; 773-525-2508.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Melanie Nissen.