kelly joe phelps Slingshot Professionals (Rykodisc) Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
The fifth album by Washington-born Kelly Joe Phelps finds the roots picker moving further away from his acoustic blues sound into country-folk territory while managing to sound surprisingly modern, largely due to the impeccably clean production. It's a bit off-putting at first -- each element on the album stands at arm's length from its neighbours, so you can hear the distinct ring of Phelps's steel strings resonate without interference from mandolin twang, the gentle lilt of accordion or a floating fiddle riff -- but you soon see the beauty in such elegance. There's a huge roster of guest talent here, including Zubot and Dawson and that dog.'s Petra Haden on backing vocals, but Phelps's own work, both on acoustic guitar and as a poetic lyricist, is what really impresses. For proof, check out the fifth track, It's James Now. It's a centrepiece, a rootsy conceptual update of Tom Waits's Kentucky Ave. with a coming-of-age ballad that damn near breaks your heart. Kelly Joe Phelps plays Hugh's Room Tuesday and Wednesday (March 4 and 5).