By Kim Ruehl


Guide Rating - rating

The Bottom Line

If it's possible to not love Kelly Joe Phelps' songs, I'd love to hear an explanation. This man can write, and he's proven this fact time and time again on all of his eight cds. His newest, Tunesmith Retrofit brings to mind pretty much every other great contemporary singer/songwriter, but only in the sense that the songs are, well, great.

  • The Anvil
  • Spanish Hands
  • Big Shaky
  • Tight to the Jar
  • Handful of Arrows
  • None.
It's hard to touch lyrics like, "my cold feet warm in a straight line," or "shadows stand tall as some school master whack on the back of a well intentioned quiet kid." Then there are the seemingly out-of-nowhere banjo instrumental halfway through the disc, "Scapegoat," which makes sense despite its randomness.

Following that is the self-indulgent "Big Shaky" and the self-reflective "Tight to the Jar." Both rather introspective songs aren't exactly a departure for Phelps. His intensely poetic, sometimes somewhat broken verse wouldn't work as prose, in that way that so many story-songs would. For some reason, however, the fact that he's singing the words, makes them completely narrative and understandable, and these two songs are possibly the most masterful on the disc.

There are two dedications on this album: (1) "MacDougal," a tribute to Dave Van Ronk, and (2) "Handful of Arrows," for Chris Whitley.

The former – an instrumental guitar piece – is so light and whimsical, you can almost picture Van Ronk skipping down MacDougal street with a basket of daisies and a smile.

The latter – an banjo number, lyrics and all – comes toward the end of the record. In it, Phelps calls for Whitley to "sing again, oh, throw another tale." Later, he calls to mind Poe's Telltale Heart, "I believe that song will breathe underneath this cabin floor."

Such poetry and reference to it is par for the course with Phelps who makes yet another indelible mark with his eigth release.