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[Off The Record]
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Kelly Joe Phelps

The only thing that detracts from Kelly Joe Phelps’s storytelling prowess is that it just doesn’t matter what the hell he’s singing about. His cadence is so hypnotizing, his rough voice so evocative, his guitar work so deeply entwined with his singing, that the gritty details of the poor guy in " Taylor John " or the gal in " Sally Ruby " are almost beside the point. The unplugged stew of folk blues forms, gospel passion, and a loose sort of rhythm — grounded on some cuts here by Morphine drummer Billy Conway and veteran blues bassist Larry Taylor — would be compelling even if Phelps were reading the back of a traffic ticket.

Yet the vivid lyrics offer perfectly distilled images and sometimes desperate tales, à la Tom Waits or Cormac McCarthy. In some respects, Phelps’s fourth disc moves him in a different direction. It is the first time the native of the Northwest, who started out on jazz bass before being captivated by the country blues, has left his slide aside or put together a disc entirely of his own tunes. It’s also the first time he’s used a backing band. But as long as nothing gets in the way of that voice and guitar — and nothing does here — it’ll be hard to find anything to complain about.


Issue Date: August 30 - September 6, 2001

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