AMERICANA UK
By Paul Kerr
March 31, 2009

WESTERN BELL

Avant garde fingerpicking here

Commonly regarded as a purveyor of acoustic guitar based delta blues songs Kelly Joe Phelps had a background of sorts in jazz. Not just any old jazz however. Apparently he camped in that niche occupied by the new jazzers of the 1960s, Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane and all that jazz (pardon for that). For all of its apparent difficulty free jazz in the sixties always had one foot firmly placed in the old spirituals and blues hollerin of days gone by and here, on a totally instrumental foray, Phelps plays folk blues with a touch of avant garde and occasional glimpses of yesteryear rags and hollers.

Spare and unadorned (Phelps plays 6 and 12 string and lap steel guitar and an occasional bell) this is not an easy album to listen to. When a tune taps into a melody one thinks of the likes of John Fahey or even Leo Kottke but throughout the album when the listeners’ foot is in danger of tapping Phelps throws in a discordant note or adopts a weird tuning.

Some of the tunes are jazz improvisations; “American Exchange Hotel” is as if Barney Kessel was being haunted by Bill Frissell. Other tunes such as the title track and “Hattie’s Hat” are rooted in old time pickin’ tunes (at times very like Fahey) but as they progress odd and faintly disturbing intrusions (a plucked string here, a slight change in tempo) throw the tune off kilter.

As stated a record that requires a degree of concentration but repeated listens eventually pull one in until it acquires an almost mystical quality. As an example “The Jenny Spin,” initially an aimless slurry of notes with twinkling bells grows until it sounds like the missing link between Zabriski Point’s hallucinatory vision and Paris, Texas’s aimless Zen wanderings. Even better is “East To Kansas” (the tittle inevitable recalls Dorothy in Oz) where the delicate (and again skewed) guitar picking eventually is resolved in an organic rumble of acoustic drummings on the instrument.

Reviewers Rating: 8 out of 10

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