August 2001

Nothing but blue Sky: Slide guitarist Phelps opens his poetic soul to new possibilities by adding a full band.

On his first three albums, Kelly Joe Phelps achieved a deep, haunting sound with just voice and guitar. He forged a slide style that drew from the acoustic folk tradition, but added his own sense of foreboding. For Sky Like A Broken Clock, Phelps augments his sound with bass player Larry Taylor (from Tom Waits' band) and drummer Billy Conway (from Morphine), while engineer David Henry adds cello and Tom West contributes Hammond organ. The result is a fuller sound that hardly abandons the sparse approach of Phelps' previous work; the other musicians add color but never clutter his brooding tales. Like Waits, Phelps writes songs that are hard to decipher. His characters wander the world as if constantly on the edge of a precipice, with cryptic lines like "A one-armed man with a box of dimes/Throw the stick and let the bull dog roll" suggesting moods without providing literal meaning. That's not true, though, of "Tommy", the story of an unbalanced but gentle soul who ends his lonely existence by setting his apartment complex on fire - but only after madly pounding on doors to make sure no one else remains in the building. Phelps manages to craft the tender folk ballad without becoming maudlin; like the best short stories, "Tommy" encapsulates an entire life in a single song, a high watermark on an album on which competition is mighty fierce. On "Taylor John" and "Clementine", the presence of instruments other than Phelps' guitar is subtle. Conway sounds as if he's playing brushes on the former, and Henry's cello on the latter rises from the mix. The drums pick on "Sally Ruby", where the faster tempo, storytelling style and playful falsetto vocals on the chorus underscore one of Phelps' most upbeat songs. Perhaps because he has other players to flesh out the sound, Phelps focuses on fingerpicking rather than slide on this material, and his soloing on "Sally Ruby" offers the first strong evidence of the shift. His slightly coarse, soulful vocals continue to rival his guitar playing. As if to take a break from the near-racket percussion, Phelps performs "Beggar's Oil" alone, picking in a quiet style reminiscent of the sweet-natured blues of Mississippi John Hurt. When the drums return on "Flash Cards", they're like a distant bear, the slapping of Taylor's bass fleshing out the sound of an effective trio. Sky Like A Broken Clock doesn't reveal all its treasures in a single listening, or even three or four, but Phelps knows how to create that elusive quality best described as "magic". Even if he tried to show you how he did it, the secrets would remain with him.