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Brother Sinner & the Whale

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Album Review

In 2009, guitarist and songwriter Kelly Joe Phelps pushed his own envelope with Western Bell, an all-instrumental, decidedly experimental record that has carved an iconoclastic niche in his catalog. Many thought it to be among his finest albums, and others felt it was too far outside the pale of his previous work to embrace. Their loss. Phelps then collaborated with songwriter Corinne West on the uneven Magnetic Skyline in 2010. After its subsequent tour, he took some time off before enlisting longtime friend, collaborator, and producer Steve Dawson to record Brother Sinner & the Whale. Recorded in mono with only his voice and guitar, the songs are — mostly — based on themes from the book of Jonah in the bible's Old Testament. Phelps has referenced and played old gospel songs throughout his career. In fact, there is a new reading of the traditional "I've Been Converted" which appeared on his debut album Lead Me On. But it's the originals, all rooted in country and blues gospel, that embrace with unflinching honesty a return to Phelps' evangelical roots, but he's older, wiser, repentant. His bottleneck slide playing and fingerpicking finesse are deft and fluid as ever. His writing is tight, full of solid melodies, beautiful couplets, biblical poetry, and lithe passages where lyrics and guitars blur and intertwine seamlessly. Check the slide blues opener "Talkin' to Jehova," where each sung line is trailed by intricate, steely fills that feed the next one. The weary "Hard Times They Never Go Away" reflects Doc Watson's ten-fingered folk-gospel style, but the lyrics and the instrumental interludes are pure Phelps, steeped in his brand of restless soul. His protagonist is out on the edge of the world, looking toward and longing for home. Speaking of instrumentals, there are two choice ones here: the gritty slide blues "Spit Me Outta the Whale," and the National Steel guitar-fueled closer, "Brother Pilgrim." The latter showcases his dazzling fingerstyle playing. No matter your spiritual beliefs, it's difficult to fault Phelps for such a warm, inviting, and brave recording. If conviction and quality are the measure of a songwriter and musician, the songs and performances on Brother Sinner & the Whale are the very measure of both.

Biography

Born: October 5, 1959 in Sumner, WA

Genre: Blues

Years Active: '00s, '10s

Vancouver, Washington-based guitarist, singer, and songwriter Kelly Joe Phelps continues to expand the parameters of modern blues through his strong commitment to literary songs and his expressive yet simple guitar stylings. While casual listeners may call Phelps a bluesman, his playing is so fluid, dexterous, and improvised he obviously has the soul of a jazz musician. Phelps was raised in a music-loving household in Sumner, Washington, near Tacoma. The son of Seventh Day Adventist parents, Phelps'...
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Brother Sinner & the Whale, Kelly Joe Phelps
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