It's not exactly what record labels consider a good career move, following up your best and most successful singer-songwriter album with a completely solo acoustic guitar collection. But Kelly Joe Phelps has never been one for following the rules, and Western Bell is so often exquisite, and always intriguing, that his commercial divergence is our gain.
Phelps has always been known as a guitar player's guitar player, but it has been in the service of his languid, blues-folk songs since his debut album, Lead Me On, back in 1997. By 2006 and his one-off for Rounder Records, Tunesmith Retrofit, Phelps had developed into a master of wedding lyrics to melody, and of fitting his expressive guitar into band arrangements.
So, Western Bell may be something more for those who miss the late, great John Fahey, or who wish Leo Kottke would drop his microphone and just play. There is definitely a sense of connection to those prior masters of acoustic guitar with folk and modernist ideas.
Phelps works in a number of tunings, frequently coming up with chords not taught in the first couple semesters of music theory. But for all the dissonance, and the speeding up and slowing down of tempo that come into play, he never loses sight of melodic invention and beauty. The title track is a pseudo-ragtime piece; "Murdo" haunts like Thelonious Monk's "Round Midnight"; "Little Family" lets the slide insinuate itself over the strings as it caresses the lovely tune.
This might be a one-time thing for Phelps, but there have to be more ideas where these came from for solo work. Here's hoping we'll get another album like this somewhere down the road.