Over the space of his 15-year recording career, Vancouver, Washington-based fingerstyle guitarist, singer and top-notch songwriter Phelps has always been on his own maverick wave length. This all-instrumental project, his most adventurous yet, finds him alternating from six-string and 12-string to lots of lap steel slide guitar (sometimes on the same song) on 11 tracks that are as overwhelmingly virtuosic as they are intriguing. Technically speaking, the majority of the numbers are improvised on the spot, often in surrogate tunings and odd rhythmic patterns, with a decided affinity for blues and jazz tones and sub-tones.
The curtain-parting, atmospheric title cut sets the mood immediately with its fleeting, nimbly fingerpicked glimpses of the past and future that prove as spellbinding as they are intrinsically wily, followed by a clutch of similar, Western-themed compositions, such as the gradually developing (a la those old Polaroid pictures) snapshot of the wide open spaces of "Sovereign Wyoming," a delicately dimensional aural portrait of the legendary "American Exchange Hotel" and a ruminative slice of slide guitar-framed wonder mysteriously titled "Blowing Dust 40 Miles."
Other nuggets encompass the subtle, string zinging "Jenny Spin," grounded by some occasional background chimes and featuring some of Phelps' most adroitly intuitive playing, along with the similarly warm and homspun "Little Family," a buckboard bouncy "East to Kansas" and the spare, seductive groove of "Hometown With Melody." No doubt about it, Phelps is in the same league as not only his mentor, bluesman Mississippi Fred McDowell, but the avant-garde likes of Leo Kottke or John Fahey as well. Definitely no drag here on his Black Hen debut.