Very few people can really pull off a true solo album, but Kelly Phelps is most definitely one of them. I reviewed a couple of his earlier releases (here and here) and learned well that you can't expect the expected from him, especially after the very striking Western Bell, a CD that stays with the listener long after the listening. Brother Sinner & the Whale isn't in the same league as that, few albums are, but it certainly carries elements of the unorthodox along with some heavily traditional recitations. The entire dozen cuts here are religiously / spiritually based, and thus it will come as no surprise that, along with a plentiful dose of Fahey, there's a good deal of Rev. Gary Davis and Mississippi John Hurt present. Accordingly, and this may shock many familiar with Phelps' iconoclasm, Kelly Joe sounds genuinely humbled.
Rory Block issued a very impressive tribute to Davis recently (here) on the well lauded Stony Plain label, and she was genuinely affected by the experience of replicating Davis' work. That makes it all the more impressive that every song except one on Brother Sinner was written by Phelps and features just him and his guitars. The daunting Steve Dawson handled the CD's technical aspects, therefore the recording's extremely lucid, greatly helped by being a monaural documentation as well, thus cleaving to superior much more natural hi-fi acoustics. Phelps' Kottke-esque leanings come through in the instrumental Spit Me Outta the Whale but the majority of the disc is a matter of heartfelt searching questions upon the infinite and its relation to human beings…as well as our failures to live up to our potential, even though we tend to kinda learn.
Interestingly, a partial motive for the shift in approach arose from Phelps' feeling that he'd found all he could in guitar work and that it was time for a change. That transformation, though, I think will surprise many. Gone are the ingenious mutations and perplexingly outré but bafflingly appropriate deviations common to Phelps' oeuvre, yo-heaved in order to clear the aisles for a serious and at times devastatingly honest (Hard Time They Never Go Away) cycle of deeply felt reflections delivered in traditional tones and gestures, I've been Converted the center of the gentle but absorbing vortex. Once again, Phelps has managed to defy any hope of pigeon-holing him and has done so with consummate grace.