A telling dedication is made deep in the liner booklet, a tribute to Dave van Ronk, and Kelly Joe Phelps is most certainly at one with that departed estimable, not to mention Townes van Zandt and others who have tended to pursue a more individualistic forte in their musicianship. Phelps has a quintet of guys instrumentally backing him at various points on this disc, but the emphasis is quite firmly on his fingerpicked acoustic guitar (also banjo & melodica), often playing a lullaby-nocturned refrain, and on his most frequently soft voice.
Like prime examples of the riveting folk tradition's literacy, the writer's verses here are packed with observances of the paradoxical and subtle, as in The Anvil:
A frown may give away something right
Spanish Hands has the quintessential forlornness of a Nick Drake masterpiece—and, yes, it sounds as though John Cale's invisible hand is there as well—but Scapegoat demonstrates that Phelps can get down with the best of them in a short jammin' banjo demonstration a la John Hartford. Big Shaky carries a Rick Roberts element, informed with big sky and grey clouds, smooth, soft, and catchy. Nothing is overblown, quite the opposite in fact, though some of the recessed instruments are very impressive for their dexterities despite each cut's overall feel of a night river silently wending to destinations unknown.
Tunesmith Retrofit is a release of uncommon music, a strong draught of the sort of craftsmanship that's being left behind all too heedlessly (though it must be said that the Fleming Artists roster, in which Phelps figures, is singularly attentive to rescuing it) and might one day, God forbid, disappear altogether. Therefore, grab this stuff while you can, there's just too precious little of it at any time.
Edited by: David N. Pyles
Copyright 2009, Peterborough Folk Music Society.
This review may be reprinted with prior permission and attribution.
Website design by David N. Pyles