It is very obvious: Kelly Joe Phelps has seen the light. On his latest recording, Brother Sinner & The Whale, inspired by the Bible’s Book of Jonah, he sings about his life as an unhappy person and a sinner and of his ‘salvation’ by the Lord. After his last CD, Western Bell (2009) and a tour with singer-songwriter Corinne West, Kelly Joe decided it was time for some soul searching. He returned to his Christian roots because, as he says, he had arrived at a point where he was sinking. He felt that something had to happen because otherwise his head would explode and his heart would stop. He looked towards faith for redemption and it gave him the power to carry on and to change patterns.
Phelps’ ‘search’ led to unexpected creativity and a dozen new songs were born. Two are instrumental: Brother Pilgrim and Spit Me Outta The Whale. There is one cover, Mississippi John Hurt’s I’ve Been Converted. Recurrent themes on the album include: the Lord who has released him from sin and hurt and who unties the shackles that bound him (Goodbye to Sorrow); his demons who sometimes come back which scares him into thinking he might fall back into his old patterns (Pilgrim’s Reach); the years of doom and gloom, being dispirited and unhappy and not knowing where to go (Sometimes a Drifter). Apparently Mr. Phelps is coming up from a very deep and dark hole.
Despite the high EO (Note: a Christian Broadcasting Group in NL) contents of Brother Sinner & The Whale, it is not a depressing or boring album. On the contrary even. Phelps packages the songs, which all impart a certain power, in a beautiful distinctive melancholic setting of gospel, blues and folk. There’s even space for a more playful note, as in Talkin’ to Jehova, Goodbye to Sorrow and in Guide me, O Thou Great Jehova. The lap steel plays no part on this recording but instead he uses a bottleneck, a National slide guitar and a black Johnny Cash model Martin D-35.
Brother Sinner & The Whale is not just about the guitar, but more than before it’s about the lyrics. Phelps has managed to create a fine mix between the two, which makes it a very strong harmonious album. It is a pure recording without a word of untruth. Every word and every note comes from the inside, not just because of Phelps’ lyrics and fine guitar playing, but also because of his clear, in-tune voice, colored by experience.
Brother Sinner & The Whale has everything you would expect from a Phelps recording and could well be his best yet.