PRINT May 1996


Joel R. L. Phelps

Back in the days when everyone believed Bruce Lee was the baddest guy walking the planet, they used to tell this story about how he could reach right into your chest and take your heart out so fast he could show it to you, still beating, before you died. Probably Bruce never actually did that, but JOEL R. L. PHELPS sure does: one minute you’re pushing the buttons on your stereo, everything more or less fine, depending. Then Warm Springs Night starts up, and midway through you’re staring at your heart, right there in front of you, pumping away in time, going beat, beat, beat. . . .

Neat trick—and it works precisely because it’s not a trick at all. As with other kinds of magic, the key is a matter of belief: clarity of intent, sincerity of purpose, are everything, and the only things that let Phelps achieve the desired effect. Which is, in this case, to tap into a certain bloodline, an undercurrent in American music, sometimes just out of earshot, sometimes audible to all, traveling from voice to voice, Robert Johnson to Hank Williams to Neil Young. And then out past that, to somewhere beyond.

Phelps starts out there, because if his music contains elements of all of the above (Johnson’s courage and lean intimacy, Williams’ weary-beyond-his-years wisdom and pop craftsmanship, and Young’s lone-coyote wail and thunder), he still has the strength to let the current help him make something uniquely his own. After years with Seattle boy-band Silkworm, this is his first solo album, his first time playing all his own songs, so with a band assembled of various Seattle musicians (William Herzog of Citizen’s Utilities, Robert Mercer of Deflowers, among others), the something in question will include, among other things: the tin whistle at the end of “OK Reno”; the jangly guitars and angular percussion on “Counsel”; all those notes suspended in space, spikes against the ether, on “Lady Lucero”; and his voice, exhausted, intimate, pulling you close. Until, finally, he can reach right in, and show you your heart, still beating. While he shows you his.

Mark Van de Walle