Without recourse to the CD booklet the lyrics wash over you like wind and rain. And...
Chris Jones 2002
Always hard to second-guess, Kelly Joe Phelps has made an album that's utterly straightforward and yet completely impenetrable. While he's impeccably assured and well-versed in real old-time country blues, his approach to song structure is equally impressionistic. Not a man for the old verse, verse, chorus etc. structure; his songs of rusting broken things and fractured memories are oblique to the point of non-existence. This leaves the listener with one hell of a job to do...
Slingshot is, as always, centred around Phelps exemplary acoustic picking, captured live. But this time around he's played this down even more than last year's Beggars Oil EP. As he says in the accompanying press release: 'Earlier on I found myself absorbed by the sound of the guitar...These days my curiosity and passion are piqued by words'. Sure enough, these words approach the condition of poetry, full of memories, snapshots of tiny details and great miniature character studies. Yet they're all delivered with the same authentic smokey voice that signifies 'weary blues'. Without recourse to the CD booklet you'll find they wash over you like wind and rain. And unfortunately it's difficult to pay the weather your full attention.
Recorded with two bands -one featuring long-time fan Bill Frisell, the other with three members of Zubot and Dawson -the albumdoes succeed as a piece of warm ensemble playing. Frisell's trademark tones on ''Not So Far To Go'' and ''Cardboard Box Of Batteries'' turn Phelps' ragged tales into softer, more melodic snapshots, while Jesse Zubot's fiddle on ''It's James Now'' lifts the foursquare blues format into a more folk-flavoured realm a little reminiscent of Nickel Creek.
It seems needlessly harsh to critique a work with such integrity. But while a live performance by the man is never less than compelling, this studio effort resists repeated attempts to engage the listener. Neither blues testament nor T S Eliot, Phelps runs the risk of our indifference. And that, for a man this talented, would be a crime.