August 1, 2006

A year and a half after his remarkable live album, Tap the Red Cane Whirlwind, Kelly Joe Phelps returns to the studio with his restless, searing, intimate vision and remarkable skills as both an instrumentalist and a songwriter. While Phelps employs several musicians from his past, such as guitarist Steve Dawson, fiddler Jesse Zubot, and keyboardist Chris Gestrin (all of whom played on 1983's Slingshot Professionals), there's nothing here that's reminiscent of that set. First and foremost, Phelps is a songwriter here. Phelps looks at his subjects, such as the lover in "Spanish Hands," from the side. He communicates directly while peeling back the layers of appearance, and describes her as both "a gentle bell" and "a cat's eye." This is the songwriter as poet, heard over and again as the subtly shaded instrumental backdrops caress his words lovingly, letting them roll out unencumbered. In the opener, "Crow's Nest," his acoustic guitar is unassuming as he trots out the words "Come along to the riverside, sit down now/I just want to hear somebody else whine/If you've got tomorrow, I've got a blade/We can dig a hole into an old book/We can keep our secrets there." He allows the truth of desperation, love, and the willingness of other possibilities all to emerge before Zubot floats his way in and adorns that guitar with some lonesome balladry of his own. On "The Anvil," Wallace Stevens' ghost comes to visit in Phelps imagery, metaphors, and similes, accompanied by a shuffling snare and a pump organ as he sings "There is an eye walking curiously/By the campground, the bedside night stand/My leg bones feel weary yet walk on they will/Holding for wheels and gravy/On a plate full of nothing but shaking my head/With a side bowl of nothing to do." His rhymes touch the inside, looking at difficulty and confusion from a nearly wistful place, longing for he knows not what. But it's Phelps use of the banjo on Tunesmith Retrofit that is the album's biggest surprise. (Before recording this set, he hadn't played one in 20 years.) He doesn't try to play bluegrass, nor does he try to haunt the ghosts of those players who have gone before.

His high lonesome breakdown on "Scapegoat" is infused with the blues, late-20th century classical music, and flamenco. He moves through them all, always returning to the night owl song of the bluegrass breakdown before it all falls apart and comes home to roost in emptiness. Another instrumental is "MacDougal," the rag tribute to Dave Van Ronk, "the Mayor of MacDougal Street" in New York. Phelps lets whimsy carry his playing that touches on Rev. Gary Davis, Jorma Kaukonen, Bert Jansch, Sandy Bull, and yes, Van Ronk himself. The lover's conflict on "Loud as Ears," another solo acoustic guitar effort, brings to mind Davy Graham in style, but it is all Phelps' distillations of folk styles from British to American to roots. But here again, it's Stevens who comes to haunt Phelps' startlingly original lyrics: "Old dark ruby coats his throat/Gloves a feathered mind/Sharpens up her fountain pen/Lays ink down along the table/Plaintive brickyard, textbook line/Whips her fable down/As long as she is able." The meta text here is Phelps writing about writing, and its inability to reach through conflict to communicate, all to the accompaniment of his acoustic guitar making its way through history. The banjo moans again in the intro to "Handful of Arrows," a tribute to the late guitarist and songwriter Chris Whitley, who died in abject poverty in 2006. Here high and low lonesome hold hands and dance as a Weissenborn guitar, drums, and bass come to join the banjo's long, sad, weeping rage. Tunesmith Retrofit is another side of Phelps to be sure, as a songwriter who understands the actual music of poetry and creates a loose, coarse weave that allows the listener room to inhabit and live inside his songs. His rhythm is true, his words are impure, his songs are nearly glorious. Once more, Phelps shatters expectations and conjures something truly original and brave in the process.