MEDIA FOLK-US: Music Review - Kelly Joe Phelps' "Tunesmith Retrofit"

Anti-Pop Strip Down: Kelly Joe Phelps’ Tune-smith Retrofit
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I was halfway through my third listen of Kelly Joe Phelps’ newest musical project when it hit me.

The guy doesn’t have a single repeated chorus or “hooky” moment on the entire CD.

This is news, I thought to myself. After all, we live in a “Baby, hit me one more time” era where, under the dictates of a music industry desperate to hold on to shrinking market share in the age of mp3 downloads and personalized ear buds, the goal of most every popular musician is to “cut through the clutter” in any way possible.

The easiest way to do this, of course, is to come up with a repeatable song lyric – no matter how stupid or cheesy – and repeat it ad nauseum. Throw in a high profile arrest for drug-induced behavior, a boob job, a sexy video, and/or a personal scandal (often involving a divorce and/or baby-born-of-wedlock with another pop star) – and you have the makings of a smash hit. Chartbusting lives.

But I digress. What makes Kelly Joe Phelps’ latest project so compelling is its subtle “anti pop” sentiment. Nothing but stripped down soul music here – tender wordsmithing delivered with a voice that sounds like the gravel stripped right off the road, and some of the most phenomenal guitar chops on the acoustic scene today.

I first heard Phelps at a little jazz club in Albuquerque, New Mexico a decade or so ago. Even then, his slide guitar playing was legendary, and seeing him perform – a jeans-clad soft-spoken and skinny dude from Oregon perched awkwardly on a chair pouring himself into each and every song with quietly ferocious intensity – I remember thinking to myself – “this is what music is about.”

His new CD – “Tunesmith Retrofit” – is Phelps doing what he does best. His songs spin outward like sonic mini-movies that invite you in:

Come on down to the Riverside/Sit down now
I just want to hear somebody else whine
If you’ve got tomorrow I’ve got a blade
We can dig a hole into an old book
Keep our secrets there…

That opening lyric, from his tune called “Crow’s Nest,” is a useful vantage point from which to see Phelps’ vision: deeply personal, steeped in a sense of the tangible (books and knives figure prominently in many of his songs), with a mysterious sense of foreboding and always, his open-mouthed acknowledgement of the importance of acoustic blues as an almost-hallowed genre of music within the American canonical tradition.

Speaking of which, Phelps pays homage to two acoustic American greats on this project. His rollicking ragtime tune “MacDougal” honors the spirit of the late songwriter Dave Van Ronk, who was known as the Mayor of Greenwich Village’s MadDougal Street back in its heyday. His tune “Handful of Arrows,” meanwhile, is a quiet shout out to acclaimed guitarist/songwriter Chris Whitley, who died (way too young) last year. In another nice twist, Phelps picks up the banjo after abandoning at age 25 for a finger-flying tune called “Scapegoat,” demonstrating once again why he is considered to be an acknowledged master of the craft.

Don’t miss an opportunity to see Phelps at the Valley Players Theater in Waitsfield on Saturday, December 15. His quiet and soulful presence – stripped down anti-pop – is a real reminder of the power of music to sing back into existence a world many think lost. He is an American gem.