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Joel RL Phelps ~ The Downer Trio | Inland Empires (12XU)
Had CWAS published its end of year Top Ten lists for 1998 and '99, ex-Silkworm guitarist Phelps' name would have sat proudly among both supplied by yours truly. The deciding factor that elevated these albums into the final cut, above the jazzy atmospherics or bludgeoning hooks of 3 and Blackbird respectively, was/remains Phelps' expressive voice, one equalled in terms of individuality and emotive range by only the select few (Chan Marshall, Richard Buckner, Mark Kozelek and Jason Molina are the only names I can summon here and now as comparable). Coincidentally, like Marshall, Buckner and Kozelek's recent output, Inland Empires is a selection of songs/lyrics written by others, interpreted as uniquely here as on either The Covers Record, The Hill or Rock'n'Roll Singer/What's Next To The Moon. As with all the best reworkings, Phelps relates these songs with all the conviction of their authors, on occasion finding a core lacking in the original. Christine McVie's Songbird in its accepted form is another pretty Fleetwood Mac ballad but here, stripped of glossy production values, it becomes a folk-lullaby, Phelps hunched over his acoustic guitar, sparse piano adding colour. When he sings "I love you, I love you, I love you like never before," the message is sent from the heart. William Herzog's brushed percussion sets the scene for the waltz-tempo reading of Townes Van Zandt's My Mother The Mountain, where a more confident Phelps stretches out, his trademark 'yelp' on hand when required. The first of two Iris DeMent songs, Calling For You is a simply beautiful break-up song that moves from the direct ("We could both walk away but there's too much to say / You love me and I know I love you") to more visual couplets ("I woke up with my angel burning / It's pouring down rain and I'm hurting.") It's an exquisitely moving performance. By putting the 'mellow' into Steve Earle's small-town melodrama, Someday, Phelps delivers some light relief with his restrained interpretation, his vow to "get out of here someday" an unconvincing plea in contrast to the original's proud boast. Earle has acknowledged Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska as a huge influence, and this interpretation could sit comfortably besides the likes of Used Cars and Highway Patrolman such is its muted power. The most upbeat track, a rendition of The Go-Betweens Apology Accepted, is classic Phelps in its delivery, his voice let off the leash, breaking, reaching, sometimes missing but still hitting home. The song is not, as is soon made clear, intended as a catalyst for an upswing in mood. Far from it. The tangible sense of loss that permeates the sole original song here, Now You Are Found [1962-1999], is shattering. With it's references to Alice Cooper and "coked-out brothers" it is somehow reminiscent of Red House Painters' Michael, but here there's a sense of life lost forever, the sleeve photograph suggesting it is that of Phelps' sister Charissa Ann. By choosing to follow this emotionally draining song with Iris DeMent's My Life, Phelps puts hope back into his and our collective hearts. Once again new meaning is gleaned from lyrics such as "My life is half the way travelled, and I still haven't found my way out of this night" or "I gave joy to my mother / I made my lovers smile / I can give comfort to my friends when they are hurting / And I can make it seem better for a while." Truly heartbreaking, powerful music.

Matt Dornan
CWAS #7 - Spring 2001