Kelly Joe Phelps - Tunesmith Retrofit

Kelly Joe Phelps
Tunesmith Retrofit


First Appeared in The Music Box, July 2006, Volume 13, #7

Written by John Metzger


It’s rare to find an artist who is willing to risk everything by jettisoning a core component of his signature style in order to force the refinement of other aspects of his performance. Yet, that’s precisely what Kelly Joe Phelps did on his 2001 endeavor Sky Like a Broken Clock. After developing a reputation as one of the finest slide guitarists in the business, he crafted an album that was utterly devoid of slide work, and what, at first, appeared to be a perplexing transitional experiment that was designed to highlight his abilities as a songwriter now is seeming to signal, for better or for worse, a permanent change in direction. His latest effort Tunesmith Retrofit continues his transformation into a straight-ahead folk stylist, and, unfortunately, the outing largely succeeds and fails for the same reasons that its predecessors did. There’s little doubt that the blues remains Phelps’ forte, and he subsequently sounds most comfortable dabbling in the spirited down-home groove of Scapegoat, channeling Elizabeth Cotton and Rev. Gary Davis on tracks like MacDougal and Plumb Line, and painting Handful of Arrows’ corners with an array of atmospheric textures. There also is some exquisite finger-picking burbling beneath the surface of his material, and his soulful vocal delivery keeps selections such as the Bill Withers-inspired Big Shaky as well as the Paul Simon-esque Crow’s Nest afloat. Still, the more that Phelps moves away from a blues-oriented framework, the more generic his ruminations become. In the end, Tunesmith Retrofit is little more than a sleepy set of songs that, despite their loveliness, frequently lack a distinctive edge. starstarstar

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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!


Copyright © 2006 The Music Box