album reviews

Kelly Joe Phelps
Tunesmith Retrofit
Rounder (2006)

Country/blues singer-songwriter Kelly Joe Phelps earned praise early in his career for his masterful slide guitar work, but his latest album shows off his prowess on two other instruments: acoustic guitar and banjo, which Phelps last played more than two decades ago. The effect is stunning on his new CD, "Tunesmith Retrofit," as his gentle plucking ripples beneath his trancelike murmur on "Loud as Ears" and "Tight to the Jar."

Even though Phelps is joined by a band for most of "Retrofit," his exquisite playing stands out above all else, from the lulling melodies of "The Anvil" to the swells of his banjo on "Handful of Arrows" (dedicated to the late Chris Whitley). In fact, "Retrofit's" instrumentation is so soothing it would be easy just to get lost in the music and the calm texture of Phelps's voice. Though the lyrical passion behind "Crow's Nest" captures a relationship's relaxed intimacy, his tone conveys the sentiment far more convincingly than his words, and Jesse Zubot's gorgeous fiddle melody augments that emotion better than additional singing could.

Similarly, Phelps often speaks volumes when no words are involved; the bouncy instrumental "MacDougal" pays tribute to 1960s New York blues-folk guitarist Dave Van Ronk (dubbed the "Mayor of MacDougal Street"). But most impressive is Phelps's banjo plucking on "Scapegoat": The song lasts barely longer than 90 seconds, but his lightning-fast finger work hardly seems rushed or sloppy, further showcasing his instrumental dexterity.

-- Catherine P. Lewis

.: Originally published: The Washington Post: 8 December 2006, Page WE06
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