By Thom Jurek
March 2009


Guitarist and songwriter Kelly Joe Phelps has always traveled an iconoclastic, enigmatic path. Since the release of his debut album, Lead Me On in 1995 on the tiny Burnside imprint, through his amazing Rykodisc recordings from the late part of that decade and the middle of the first part of this century, he's wound his way through covers and his own songs with a particular sense of place and rough-hewn elegance. Western Bell is Phelps' first record since 2006, issued on the Vancouver indie Black Hen Music.

Norman & Nancy Blake once released an album with their Rising Fawn String Ensemble called Original Underground Music from the Mysterious South, comprised of folk songs, Civil War era reels, and dance tunes that felt utterly out of time and space because they were so basic and unadorned, so completely uncluttered by anything but a direct attempt to play this music as the seemingly forgotten and alien construct it was in the early 1980s. Phelps' album, it can be paraphrased, is "original underground music from the mysterious (North)west." Just as Loren MazzaCane Connors mutated his love of the Delta blues into an avant-guarde hybrid all his own -- often barely recognizable as blues but clearly based in it -- Phelps has, on Western Bell, offered listeners a complete synthesis of his musical vision as a guitarist. This is a completely instrumental collection of original tunes played on acoustic six- and 12-string guitars, lap slide guitar, and bells. Musically, Phelps combines his love of Piedmont style picking, early 20th century Texas, Louisiana, and deep Delta blues with his love of decidedly Western notions of folk song and Rocky Mountain mountain music. Even this description is poor. The reason is that Phelps infuses his own music with such comfort, space, and gentleness in his playing that what comes out is his own inviting but subjective history of blues as it has evolved in his spirit. Some of these songs are hummable, such as the opening title track, a waltz with some odd bits of slightly dissonant harmonics tossed in near the end that add dimension. "Blowing Dust 40 Miles" is skeletal, with slide and fingerpicking styles varying and moving through and against one another, trying to hesitantly and somewhat tensely decide if there is a song in the improvisation, all the while pulling the listener deeper into the ghostliness of the music itself. "Hometown with Melody," played on a 12-string, sounds like a combination lullaby and travel song played as a tentative reminiscence. "The Jenny Spin," played on the lap slide, has a minimal melody, articulated through a fragmented mode with bells hovering in the distance to ground the tune because it's barely there -- despite some amazingly fluid playing by Phelps -- and might float away. "Blue Daughter Tattoo" combines the abundance of Phelps' fingerstyle expertise with a bass-string driven walk through western cowboy melody, country blues, and logging camp song forms. Western Bell is among the most unique acoustic guitar recordings out there today. It's not a superpicker exercise, and it doesn't sound like any of the past or current acoustic guitar icons; Phelps moves it his own way. Here he plays as if in dialogue with some unseen entity, telling stories on the instrument that only he knows the meaning of -- or he's asking questions, trying to discover for himself. Cryptic, hushed, confoundingly beautiful, this is a brilliant, deeply moving work by an artist who has created a new language on the acoustic guitar, culled from the discontinued speech fragments of American music's own mysterious past.