A natural, effortless pairing, and a set that’s enduringly treasurable.
Andrew Mueller 2010-10-29
Californian singer-songwriter West and veteran folk/blues guitarist Phelps can regard March 18th, 2010 as a decent day’s work. On that date, they knocked out the first six of the eight tracks on this unfussily sublime album, constructing from two guitars and two voices a gorgeous monument to 70s Americana, roughly equal proportions Laurel Canyon folk and Nashville countrypolitan (a relatively ponderous second session, in Amsterdam on June 7th, 2010, yielded the other two tracks).
Most of the songs on Magnetic Skyline have appeared before, on West’s bafflingly under-heralded solo albums, but her decision to turn Phelps loose on them was a wise one. Though it’s difficult to think of much music in the vicinity of this genre which wouldn’t be improved by Phelps’ astonishing acoustic flatpicking, he plays these songs like West wrote them for him.
Unusually for a virtuoso, Phelps never succumbs to the temptations of flash, his every note modestly serving the song, his every riff vastly more complex than it might initially sound: his accompaniments to River’s Fool and Whiskey Poet especially would be gratefully claimed by Richard Thompson.
Vocally, as well, West and Phelps are a natural, effortless pairing, as congruent – if rather less given to the histrionic – as Parsons and Harris, or Plant and Krauss. Phelps’ parts lend the songs a depth – in many meanings of the word – somewhat lacking from their original incarnations. The rueful ballads Amelia and Lily Ann in particular should always have sounded like this, hushed and intimate, their outlook tilted from solo laments to misfortunes of their titular characters to a conversational despair at what has become of them.
If Magnetic Skyline should prove a one-off, it’ll be no less enduringly treasurable. It would be a shame, however, if its creators did not pursue this partnership further.