By Fred Kraus
September, 2012

KELLY JOE PHELPS - Brother Sinner and the Whale

One of the most appealing aspects of singer/songwriters is their fearlessness in wearing their hearts on their sleeves. Whether revealing their most innermost ache, shedding light on the human condition, or just brimming with lust, these artists connect us to our humanity. It just hurts so good. Of course, if their compositions are hummable and the lyrics are quotable, well, that’s right up there next to godliness. Speaking of which, Portland slide guitar virtuoso and fingerstylist Kelly Joe Phelps takes a religious turn with his ninth full-length CD, "Brother Sinner and the Whale." The title alludes to the Bible’s book of Jonah, and many of the album’s lyrics were inspired by those passages. Phelps, who had a Christian upbringing, had not previously turned out anything thematically akin to this work, which he has said would probably be referred to as his gospel album. But in true singer/songwriter fashion, this solo effort focuses more on Phelps’ life journey and his wish to express his feelings rather than fixate on the gospel music genre. His own explanation: "I’d arrived at a place where I was sinking. I had to do something or my head was going to blow up or my heart would stop. When I found a way to allow myself to open up to creative impulse, this is what was staring me in the face." To his credit, his well-crafted compositions relate his story while displaying his sure-handed guitar work, and his sandpapery voice has never sounded better nor more earnest. The titles of the songs -- all but one of which are his own – pretty much say it all: "Talkin’ to Jehova," "Hope in the Lord to Provide," "Pilgrim’s Reach," "I’ve Been Converted," "The Holy Spirit Flood," "Brother Pilgrim." While the theme is rediscovering one’s lost faith, the musical approach recalls the easy-rolling fingerpicking style of Mississippi John Hurt. The liner notes read like a prayer from the pulpit, and the artist feels the power of God. But the real power is in the spirit conveyed by Phelps: Authentic. Assured. Potent.