Such technically dazzling stuff can often be hard to really love.
Chris Jones 2009-03-13
Kelly Joe Phelps, the American singer and guitarist, is another in the vast club of musicians who reside in relative obscurity despite critical validation with every release. On this latest opus he dispenses with the oblique wordplay that marks his usual output and concentrates instead on his considerable skill with six strings and piece of wood. The results, while typically idiosyncratic, are as remarkable and offbeat as you'd expect from a man of such proven talent.
Phelps obviously has a foot in both the traditional and the avant garde. The introductory title track sets the tone marvellously by wrong-footing the listener. The ghost of primitivist John Fahey lurks over the bluesy picking. That is, until a single dissonant note pokes its head over the parapet. The listener may try to ignore it, until it's joined by more and more, gradually skewing the tune until it begins to resemble one of Les Dawson's famous 'inept' piano recitals. It's both clever, amusing and oddly charming.
What follows is a collection of the equivalent of musique concrete for the guitar (all squeaks and scrapes; again reminiscent of Fahey's later work with Cul De Sac), ragas, ragts and blues laments. Often approaching the condition of ambience or even Ry Cooder's soundtrack work it plays with abstraction in a teasing manner. Blowing Dust 40 Miles is assembled out of harmonics, wobbly slide work and suchlike. This is music that teeters on the edge of chaos; almost as if hanging out with jazz players like Bill Frisell has taught him the value of improvisation even though it's welded to a folk chassis.
And while Phelps' lyrical work may sometimes be a little too intense for its own good, you find yourself missing his rasp. Such technically dazzling stuff can often be hard to really love, and it is a little over-egged. But when it's properly balanced with the glow of familiar chord progressions as on the appropriately-named 12-string track, Hometown With Melody, it's simply wonderful. One for fans.