"Tunesmith Retrofit"
(Rounder Records)
August 21, 2006


Is it too much to call this Oregon singer-songwriter and guitarist the quiet genius of contemporary American folk? Full of images and turns of phrase, his writing — the love song “Spanish Hands,” the story of ruin “Red Light Nickel” — stands alone as poetry. And his drumless studio band’s blend of acoustic and steel guitars, banjo, violin, and organ creates a melodic architecture full of air and grace. Phelps’s own acoustic six-string work is as masterful as ever — even-toned and sweet on both solo and ensemble pieces, though there’s little of the slide expertise that earned him early recognition. His melodies are a bit slower and more boldly chiseled, eschewing flash in favor of supporting the songs. On stage, however, I suspect, he still exhibits the same wild improvisational instincts, honed from years of playing free jazz, as did the late Chris Whitley. His tribute “Handful of Arrows” extols Whitley’s guitar skills, using a gun as a metaphor for both Whitley’s slide and the violence and passion of his tunes. The several instrumentals include the title track, which is driven by Phelps’s melodica, and “McDougal,” a gentle guitar rag for the late Greenwich Village folk kingpin Dave Van Ronk.