March 2009


When Bill Frisell and Leo Kottke are in your corner, you don't have to worry much about who isn't…and that pair has already put their stamp of approval on Kelly Joe Phelps' music. Still, if you're familiar with Frisell's transition from a prominent psych-jazz-fusion guitarist into a beyond-the-pale mutant-Americana practitioner, then you may harbor a lurking suspicion that not all is going to be rural kosher in the musics he calls attention to.

Western Bell is Phelps' 8th full-length CD but his 1st all-instrumental release, solo and live in studio (and, as far as can be detected, each song was caught in a single take, as-is, straight out, no messn' around) and it isn't whatever you might be imagining. Instead, the guitarist has chosen to explore some of the outer possibilities of his instrument…not as, say, Derek Baily did (totally lacking form, foundation, or function) but rather to see how far melody could be established and then twisted, sometimes way out of bounds but without losing it entirely.

To that end, Blowing Dust 40 Miles is an excellent place to start. Embracing a Cage-ian ting-tang method in pizzicato, there's plenty of incidentalism to the piece, punctuated by slidey thematics rather than the other way around. A strong element of Bill Harkleroad (Capt. Beeheart, Mallard) invades the piece as well, bending off in a Dalinian fashion to soft organics. The damnedest thing is that the song actually fully represents its titular subject. Having spent a good deal of time in the desert, I can well attest to the fact: a strange set of zephyrs will indeed conduct themselves just as portrayed here. Try Canyonlands and the Muley Twist section off Burr Trail (both in Utah, with some of the most exquisite desert expanses in the country) for proof. It's eerie how Phelps has captured it.

As you might expect, dementia and spooky spaces haunt the roster of cuts, familiar while abstract, down home in an X-Files fashion, something Orson Welles would've soundtracked his German Expressionist movies with (MacBeth, The Trial, etc.) but also what Roy Rogers was probably hearing after a boozed-out weekend bender, finding himself in bed with Trigger and an unsettlingly gauzy case of the DTs. Thus, we understand the affinity of Frisell and Kottke for this kind of very unusual work…because, well, them boys jes' ain't right in their heads either, thank God. Though this is Americana, it's been filtered once or twice through the asylum down the lane...and the sedatives might not have worked as expected.