April 2, 2009
not exactly what record labels consider a good career move, following
up your best and most successful singer-songwriter album with a completely
solo acoustic guitar collection. But Kelly
Joe Phelps has never been one for following the rules, and Western
Bell is so often exquisite, and always intriguing, that his commercial
divergence is our gain.
Phelps has always been known as a guitar player's guitar player, but
it has been in the service of his languid, blues-folk songs since his
debut album, Lead
Me On, back in 1997. By 2006 and his one-off for Rounder Records, Tunesmith
Retrofit, Phelps had developed into a master of wedding lyrics
to melody, and of fitting his expressive guitar into band arrangements.
So, Western Bell may be something more for those who miss the
late, great John Fahey, or who wish Leo Kottke would drop his microphone
and just play. There is definitely a sense of connection to those prior
masters of acoustic guitar with folk and modernist ideas.
Phelps works in a number of tunings, frequently coming up with chords
not taught in the first couple semesters of music theory. But for all
the dissonance, and the speeding up and slowing down of tempo that come
into play, he never loses sight of melodic invention and beauty. The
title track is a pseudo-ragtime piece; "Murdo" haunts
like Thelonious Monk's "Round Midnight"; "Little
Family" lets the slide insinuate itself over the strings as it caresses
the lovely tune.
This might be a one-time thing for Phelps, but there have to be more
ideas where these came from for solo work. Here's hoping we'll get another
album like this somewhere down the road.