July 15, 2001

Renewing His Haunting License
Kelly Joe Phelps Affirms His Status as a Master Musician and Storyteller

Anyone who has ever seen singer-songwriter Kelly Joe Phelps in concert knows he makes quite a first impression. Now, with the release of his CD Sky Like a Broken Clock, he's made a lasting one. Onstage, Phelps plays lap-style acoustic guitar with a bar slide. The guitar strings are jacked up a little, like those on a Dobro, but the absence of a resonator allows Phelps to produce a tone that has more sparkle than twang. Sometimes he doesn't even sound like a slide player who uses open tunings. For example, when his right thumb is in motion, creating an alternating bass pattern beneath a bright melody, Phelps evokes the tuneful fingerstyle touch of Mississippi John Hurt and other seminal blues artists. Prior to Sky Like a Broken Clock (Rykodisc), Phelps recorded alone. On his previous three albums he favored a mix of traditional and original tunes that suited his soft but weathered voice. The new album marks a departure for three reasons: the consistent quality of the songwriting (Phelps is becoming a heck of a storyteller); the haunting allure of the arrangements (a rootsy mesh of guitar, bass and drums, accented by cello and organ); and the fresh emphasis on conventional fingerstyle guitar playing, sans slide. The songwriting on "Broken Clock" sometimes mirrors the subtlety that distinguishes Phelps's guitar work. Just as he often implies harmonic changes with a single note instead of a full chord, his lyrics frequently leave words unspoken and tensions unresolved. Against a backdrop of muffled beats and rustling percussion, a series of dark ballads and offbeat scenarios emerges. As a writer, Phelps is clearly drawn to emotional extremes; his characters often seem to be teetering between despair and death. "Clementine" concerns a prostitute who encounters "men with eyes that bleed inside their head, who murder souls in every bed." "Flash Cards" traces the trajectory of an unfulfilled life, from a young boy's bravado to middle-aged man's anguish. "Tommy," one of three solo tracks, weds a simple guitar melody to a tale involving schizophrenia and arson. But Phelps has more to offer listeners than just a sack full of woes. His songs are also infused with poignancy, passion and spirituality. Accompanying Phelps on the band tracks are bassist Larry Taylor, best known for his work with Tom Waits, and drummer Billy Conway, of the Boston band Morphine. Both musicians are closely attuned to the moods Phelps conjures on acoustic guitar, not to mention his bedrock blues sensibility, and they frequently manage to add drama, color and texture to the arrangements in a manner that sounds freely improvised. They also help generate the entrancing rhythmic momentum that keeps even the bleakest songs on the album from drifting into lulls. The more you listen to Sky Like a Broken Clock, the more you'll likely think of stylistic parallels: the early and late recordings of Waits; the Deep South musings of Cassandra Wilson; the languid flow and hushed tone of recent music by Bob Dylan and Lucinda Williams. Granted, Phelps isn't in the same league as these musicians, at least not yet. But he'd sound perfectly at home sharing a bill with any of them.