September, 2006

The joy of discovery is contagious, the thrill of exploration undeniable. Perhaps that’s why so many great records are marked by their sense of reinvention; Achtung Baby is a great album not just because of its writing and musicianship, but because it’s the sound of four previouslypigeonholed musicians chopping down the Joshua Tree. It’s the sound of liberation. Tunesmith Retrofit, the latest collection from celebrated blues guitarist Kelly Joe Phelps, will probably never be called his Achtung Baby, but it’s an album of thrilling new discoveries and joyful new directions nevertheless. Phelps has built a solid following and cultivated a sterling reputation by playing slow-burning, languid, spiritually seeking acoustic blues—songs that unfold slowly and carefully, reveling in each note and showcasing the man’s crackerjack guitar skills. On Tunesmith, he pulls back the curtain on a different and equally impressive facet of his music, introducing his listeners to the remarkable gifts of Kelly Joe Phelps the Songwriter and Poet.
That’s not to say that Kelly Joe Phelps the Guitar Virtuoso has up and left; everything that made Phelps’ previous recordings so enchanting is still here, which of course includes his white-hot here, which of course includes his white-hot acoustic guitar performances, hypnotic fingerpicking in the vein of traditional blues, country, and folk. For the first time, though, Phelps’ guitar playing is not the center of attention; rather, the musicianship serves to enhance the songs, offering painterly flourishes as mesmerizing as any electric guitar jam and making each song a feast for the spirit and the imagination.
Look at the track times on Tunesmith and you’ll notice that, for a Phelps record, these songs are comparatively short. It’s not that they’re slight— they’re just taut, lean, cut close to the bone. These aren’t the works of a guitar show-off, but of a storyteller and poet. Phelps’ lyrics are front and center here, and they’re delightful—brilliantly observed, eloquently stated, full of character and wonderful turns of phrase. They’re not sermons, parables, or political screeds—they’re slices of life, beautifully preserved for posterity. Phelps’ lyricism is enchanting, even inspiring, from the tender romance of “Crow’s Nest” and the love metaphors in “Spanish Hands” to the celebration of simplicity and hard work in “The Anvil” and the tight storytelling of “Loud as Ears” and “Red Light Nickel.”
And Phelps’ skills as a lyricist aren’t the only surprises here. For one thing, there’s the presence of the banjo—an instrument Phelps plays on this record after having gone twenty years without even picking it up. Tunesmith also marks the first time Phelps has recorded any original instrumental compositions; “Scapegoat” is a showcase for his lickety-split banjo picking, while “Macdougal” is a whimsical ragtime piece. It’s a sparse and generally very earnest affair, and in the hands of a lesser artist it would likely come off as monochromatic. To his credit, though, Phelps keeps things consistently interesting here, conjuring a number of moods and emotions in his evocative writing, and even branching out into a few surprising new directions—with its steady blues riffs and embellishments from a melodica, “Big Shaky” could almost pass for a Dylan song, and fiddles and pedal steels add color to a few numbers. It’s Phelps’ show in the end, though, and what he delivers is nothing less than triumphant—a rare album that amazes with both its musicianship and its storytelling.