July 2001

Darwin taught us that evolution is a beautiful thing, and Kelly Joe Phelps has kept that lesson alive. Through 10 years and four albums he's progressed from free-jazzer to bluesman, slide-guitar spiritualist and, now, poignant storyteller. Phelps has left his solo format to employ Tom Waits' bassist Larry Taylor and Morphine drummer Billy Conway on these 10 poetic songs - all character studies that use hard-chiseled details to evoke delicate, shifting emotions. He's also abandoned his trademark slide guitar for a more subtle kind of acoustic virtuosity that spins lovely little melodies and gently propulsive arpeggios into every corner of the music. What he's found along the way is a knack for describing a watch and an apartment that says volumes about his sweet, slow and suicidal charcter "Tommy", and stepping into the lives of lost souls in "Taylor John". There's newfound freedom in his dusty voice, too, which sails into ghost-whisper falsettos and growls like a blundering, injured lion as his lyrics demand. That plus the rambling, rhythmic support often invokes Waits, but without the rust and the rat traps. The result is textured, pure, noble and moving. Call it art. ****