By Gregory Wolfe
September 5, 2012

KELLY JOE PHELPS - Brother Sinner and the Whale

Few albums walk the line between blues and contemporary gospel like Brother Sinner & the Whale; Kelly Joe Phelps’s bottleneck guitar blues collection has been reviewed positively by believers and nonbelievers alike, but there’s nothing veiled or vague about the redemption-heavy theme. From "Goodbye to Sorrow": "I have said goodbye to sorrow as I lay before the cross / His goodness and his mercy saved a child that was lost." The technical prowess of the slide and finger style guitar and the authenticity of Phelps’s voice charm those unfamiliar with the faith or mystified by the terminology. Many artists attempt to mix this special sauce and few succeed, either coming off as too preachy for the radio or too ambiguous for church. Phelps thrives in this intersection and heaps on the gospel, but leaves room for musical breaks filled with his masterful fingerpicking. Says Phelps, “This is going to be referred to as a gospel record, I suppose. The music is presented in an ancient form, but it’ll sound contemporary because of the way I play and write... I’m just looking at it really as a Kelly Joe record and a slide and finger style guitar record. It’s a singer’s record fundamentally based in old music forms.” Phelps managed to pull this off in a three-day recording session with producer Steve Dawson, who collaborated with Phelps on 2006’s Tunesmith Retrofit and 2003’s Slingshot Professionals. In three days, Phelps fashioned an album that surpasses popular CCM artists in technical proficiency and straightforwardness of message, but avoids the cheese that so often infects eager-to-preach albums. When Kelly Joe puts it all together in his quiet, humble way, you get the feeling he’s just telling the truth.