Today’s blues is often characterized by eccentric stylistic deviations, sometimes only leaving trace elements of the roots. It is not uncommon to hear blues that is devoid of a bar structure and repetition. Ordered melody and bridges replace recurring chord patterns. The untrained vocals that often exemplify blues lyricism are relinquished for refined, more calculated tones of expression. Like other improvisation-based music forms, blues is moving in a linear fashion.
Guitarist/singer/songwriter Kelly Joe Phelps is taking the music by force, convincing us that it belongs to him, building upon the sounds with sharp inventiveness and smart lyrics. Phelps’ first three albums were delivered using no more than the voice and a masterful slide guitar technique. Sky Like a Broken Clock is an expansion of Phelps’ songwriting, to say the least. The bulk of the record is a live-in-the-studio-sans-overdubs trio recording, with Larry Taylor on bass and Billy Conway on drums. The accompanists have more than convincing experience in this type of setting; Taylor plays regularly with Tom Waits, and many will recognize Conway for his captivating work with the avant-rock trio, Morphine. The fact that the music was recorded with minimal takes is more than impressive, as this record marks their first occasion performing together.
The first thing you notice about Phelps’ music is his intelligent songwriting. Thought provoking lyrics are balanced by creative arrangements, and Phelps guitar style is its own breed. In a voice that is part salty crooner, part Lyle Lovett, Phelps sings about perseverance (“Taylor John”), infidelity (“Sally Ruby”) and nostalgia (“Flash Cards”), all to hypnotic effect, as if a reader is absorbed in the rhythm of an unaffected story. The music is often a surreal slap in the face, as in “Clementine,” where moody progressions are coupled with unsettling turns. “Easier is the money for giving in/ Like an aging whore/ Watching her own body turn into a lump of clay/ Than fighting for someone to stay.”
Perhaps Phelps’ uniqueness comes from his influences. Once referred to as “the John Coltrane of slide guitar,” the substance of his music is derived from the incongruity of expectations. Then maybe he’s just his own dog.
Sky Like a Broken Clock is both haunting and mesmerizing, and Phelps’ is voice that needs to be heard.