After a trio of song-based albums, on which his original trademark lap slide guitar seemed to have long since gone, this all-instrumental selection for Steve Dawson's Black Hen label brings Phelps's guitar skills right back into the foreground - but not in the way one might expect. The titles are pure Americana - Sovereign Wyoming, Blowing Dust 40 Miles, East to Kansas and the title track, for example - but there are few swooping, echoing slide lines or lonesome, hanging notes here; instead, the 11 tracks are a challenging mix of intense, tricksy guitar playing and deliberate, considered atonality that create an astonishing somewhat postmeodern album.
Postmodern, you say? Well, yes. In Western Bell and Hometown With Melody the structure is waltz-like, with touches of stately Stephen Foster, Randy Newman-like American harmonies, allied to unexpected notes that aren't there to annoy or surprise, but to create an otherworldly tension, like a familiar landscape seen through a distorting mirror. The Jenny Spin is a wonderful reworking of every cleveer steel guitarist there was - Leon McAuliffe on something extremely potent, perhaps - that crosses over into Bill Evans territory amid genuinely fearsome picking; Hattie's Hat, played on what sounds like an ancient National, is a gentle ragtime lullaby that doesn't quite go where it should, full of sweet dischords; and Blowing Dust 40 Miles combines slide with other parts of the guitar that don't usually get used in a composition.
Describing something unusual or different is never easy, so I'm using similes to give an idea; but the important point is that Phelps has created something new under the sun - each track makes one sit up and listen but each track is also immediately memorable after one play. This is a brave venture that deserves your attention: it takes a guitarist in total command of his skills to achieve the impressionist effects here, and he does so joyously.