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Kelly Joe Phelps 

shine eyed mister zen
(Rykodisc)

Wednesday, Aug 9 2000
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Kelly Joe Phelps' studio cuts sound peculiarly live, even improvised. Maybe it's his low, half-hoarse voice, or the simplicity of the musical arrangements, or the awkward phrasing of the lyrics ("It's been three-fourths of a long, long year/ Since together we've been"). Born and raised in Washington state, Phelps isn't really a Delta boy, but on his latest album, he sounds as real as they come.

Phelps has a love affair with the slide guitar, a fact he emphasizes by playing and singing unaccompanied, with only occasional snatches of harmonica thrown in. In his arrangement of the traditional "The House Carpenter," his rapt care for the music shows in both the intensity of the high, plucked note at the end of one line and the low, sensual slur of the vocals in the next. Limiting himself to these instruments allows him to focus on them with a concentration that is almost palpable in certain songs. "Piece by Piece," for example, is pure seduction, with deliberate chords balancing the barely contained energy of his vocals. At these times Phelps' voice recalls the intimacy of Jeff Buckley's recordings.

Phelps' sweet-as-honey arrangement of "Goodnight Irene," with its rising and falling plucked refrain, sends tender chills up and down the spine. "Quit your ramblin'/ Quit your gamblin'/ Stay home at night with your wife," he croons. Phelps crafts a home-grown, earthy wisdom that's summed up neatly in the album's title. The "shine eyed mister zen" comes in by name on another track, "River Rat Jimmy," as the thoughtful, bloody-finger-wrapping young narrator "playing boyhood mumblety-peg/ Six inch of Bowie blade." You don't get much more oddly down-home than that.

At times Phelps is a bit of a mumbler, letting a poignant lament and some by-the-book bluesy licks do the work of forging a connection with the listener, as in his arrangement of the traditional "Dock Boggs Country Blues." But all is forgiven when he gets around to "Wandering Away," a gorgeously crafted original with bluesy vulnerability. "Tryin' to sing like a bird/ But all I can do is mumble and shout ... and moan/ We get through another damn day/ Wish I was magic so I could make it go away." And indeed the song -- and the album -- possesses just that kind of everyday magic, drawing you out of your world, drawing you into the sound of Kelly Joe Phelps.

About The Author

Katherine Brown

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