Kelly Joe Phelps is a masterful slide guitar player and soulful singer/songwriter who hails from West Coast Appalachia, A.K.A. the Oregon/Washington hills. His three previous LPs were incredible solo efforts highlighting his six-string prowess and off-kilter-yet-dead-on lyrical observations.
For Sky Like A Broken Clock, Phelps picks up some fellow travelers: ex-Morphine drummer Billy Conway and longtime Tom Waits bassist Larry Taylor. Although they'd never played together previously, the trio headed for rural Longview Farms in West Massachusetts. There, with Rykodisc president George Howard at the production helm, they laid down 10 ultra-tight, organically smooth folk-noir tracks in just under three days of recording with no overdubs.
"Taylor John," the album's opener, lays the groundwork. Phelps' gravelly, nearly sub-sonic voice flirts with his light, deliberate fretwork, while Taylor fills the gaps with solitary bass notes, and Conway tap-a-tap-taps a subtle shuffle on the snare.
Phelps has never sounded better. "Gold Tooth," for example, gains immeasurably from churning, freight-trainy drumming, ponderous bass and faint-but-powerful echoes of Hammond organ. Liberated from the constraints of keeping in tune with the guitar, Phelps' singing reveals a chocolate-y essence delicious to hear.
He may sound prettier, but his lyrics still wander the back alleys and dusty rail yards of America's underbelly. He spins out tales of marriages gone sour ("Clementine"), lives gone astray ("Fleashine") and America's inheritance of terrible optimism. "I've thrown my seed out the window," Phelps sings on "Beggar's Oil." "Down in the dirt below/ I'll water it with my distrust/ My blatant well-worn rough-hewn crust/ I'll mojo it with voodoo dust/ And pray that it will grow."
No tragedy is easy to read about, or listen to for that matter, but Kelly Joe Phelps has the rare ability to evoke empathy in his songs without resorting to saccharine sentiment or political grandstanding. Sky Like A Broken Clock won't ever make you want to dance with joy, but few albums capture such a strong marriage of songwriting and collaborative musicianship.