I've been following guitarist Kelly Joe Phelps pretty much since his first album, recorded in Portland and featuring revelatory takes on old country blues songs. He's gone to some pretty cool and sometimes pretty strange places with his music, usually based on lap steel traditions, but also recently fingerpicked guitar. But I wasn't prepared for his newest album, Brother Sinner & The Whale, at all. It's not so much a throwback to his earlier, more traditional work, it's actually almost a prequel. It sounds like the album he could have started with, but that's really more of an auditory illusion than anything else. The key to Phelps has always been his remarkable subtlety as a musician, and the illusion of his new album is that he's able to make completely new music sound impossibly old. Maybe not as old as Jonah, the biblical tale that inspired some of the songs on Brother Sinner & the Whale, but certainly as old as the gospel blues 78s that inspired the folk revival. The songs on Brother Sinner and the Whale tap that always-rich crossroads of biblical old world mystical doom with the music of the steamy American South. It's a crossroads that's inspired about a million singers and it's also one of the richest veins in our hybrid American society. Over a century ago, classical composers struggled to find a sound that was uniquely American, bringing in Native American chants, or old-time fiddle tunes to their orchestral works, but the South had already invented the quintessential American sound by bringing the stormiest parts of the ancient Bible into the hottest parts of the Southern states. Standout tracks on Phelps' new album include the rolling rhythms of "Goodbye to Sorrow," the softly gentle "Pilgrim's Reach," the lovely melody of "Spit Me Outta the Whale," and the old-school Phelps fingerpicked guitar on "Hard Time They Never Go Away." It's impressive that by going completely back to his roots, Phelps has managed to find something completely new to say with his music. Only the best artists can pull that off.
PS: If you want to know more about Phelps' perspective on the new album, be sure to check out this excellent interview, "Playing With All Ten Fingers," with No Depression's Doug Heselgrave.