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Joel RL Phelps & The Downer Trio | Blackbird (12XU)
Following on from the release of the remarkable covers EP, Inland Empires, earlier this year, comes the welcome re-release of 1999's Blackbird. Repackaged and with four bonus tracks, this hard to find gem is now once more available. The opening two shot salvo of Then Slowly Turn and I Got A Live One couldn't be any more different from this year's mostly acoustic EP. Both tracks rip, rage and snarl and are over in under two minutes. Phelps' voice is a modern day wonder, moving from a gentle whisper to a savage scream, often in the same line. His songs and delivery exude the kind of existential anguish that I haven't heard since American Music Club's frighteningly intense first four albums. Things barely quieten down on the seething Unless Your Tired of Living or Invite's imprecation of "Old friend, weakness, what did I do? / Well, I guess that I invited you." Angular guitar work and rumbling percussion transform the Comsat Angels' Lost Continent into a brooding, edgy number filled with an almost impossible sense of longing. Blessed Salt Lake is a Western in miniature (though one directed by a Bunuel or a Lynch) gravitating around Phelps' howl of "We should have known better than to cross Salt Lake" and ending on the emotional punch of the last line. The whole album sounds like it was played in a small room, it's a tense and difficult record, somewhat like the aforementioned AMC's Engine. Fittingly, for someone raised in Montana, there is a palpable sense of space and isolation which pervades the album and several songs (Landslide, Blessed Salt Lake, Lost Continent) use geographical metaphors to superbly convey feelings of alienation and doubt. Of the four bonus tracks, one is an outtake while the rest are stunning solo acoustic takes of three of the album's songs. Here, Phelps' voice really lets rip, soaring and swooping into uncharted territory on the dissolute Landslide or turning the exuberant I Got A Live One into a ballad of resigned acceptance and almost heartbreaking pathos. Truly special.
CWAS #8 - Summer 2001