Kelly Joe Phelps
When Kelly Joe Phelps sings “I’ve been waiting a long time to get these stories out” on the opening cut of his latest album, he’s delivering more of a warning than an admission. The singer-songwriter built his reputation by being one of the more jaw-droppingly good guitar players nobody’s ever heard of, delivering a deft and coolly understated combination of finger-picking and lap-style slide. His previous releases, especially 2003’s Slingshot Professionals, were memorable efforts with vivid lyrical imagery filtered through Phelps’ ruggedly elegant delivery, but the albums were still dominated by his musicianship. With Tunesmith Retrofit, however, Phelps is determined to put his words in the limelight, and as with many transitional efforts, the results are mixed.
The opening “Crow’s Nest” and “Handful of Arrows,” a banjo-driven track dedicated to the late Chris Whitley, are both standouts. Things get dicey, though, when Phelps’ playing and writing turn too thick to digest, such as in the darkly textured “Loud as Ears,” whereon he sings, “Old dark ruby coats his throat/gloves a feathered mind/sharpens up her fountain pen.” I can’t even begin to decipher that.
Phelps may have waited so long to tell these stories because he had trouble finding an audience with enough patience to appreciate them. Longtime fans will find satisfying nuggets, but curious newcomers should look toward earlier work for a proper introduction. (Skylar Browning)
Kelly Joe Phelps plays at the Elk’s Lodge Saturday, Sept. 2, at 8 PM. $14 /$16 at the door.
Flat Mountain Girls
Honey Take Your Whiskers Off
Portland, Ore., has long nurtured a vibrant old-time music scene, and the Flat Mountain Girls have bragging rights as the longest-running all-girl band from the Rose City. On their second album the chipper lasses lay down traditional Appalachian fiddle tunes and numbers by the Carter Family, Utah Phillips, Riley Puckett and the Louvin Brothers—all the while proving they don’t pick like pansies. Each member demonstrates a swagger with her instrument (Rachel Gold on banjo, Nann Alleman on guitar, Lisa Marsicek on fiddle, Laura Quigley on bass), sending the group into a stringed fracas while maintaining a steady groove.
Vocally, The Flat Mountian Girls showcase just as much bravado. Without a trace of priss, Alleman’s distinctive soprano swoops through “Rock Salt and Nails” and, backed by intricate harmonies from Gold and Marsicek, delivers a rare degree of grit and emotion. Gold and Marsicek also get turns as lead singers and instrumentalists, adding variety to the track order.
From ragtime to old-time, the material these gals play goes back nearly an entire moth-eaten century, and their robust vocal and instrumental skills ultimately make this album a lusty and pleasurable promenade through the history of American stringband music. (Caroline Keys)
The Flat Mountain Girls play the Top Hat Friday, Sept. 1, at 10 PM. Call 728-9865.
As the band name would suggest, The Reals are rooted in a brand of Americana that’s as authentic as a front-porch sing-along. This Denver-based quintet, currently traveling with New Belgium Brewing’s Tour de Fat, isn’t as fancy as it is engagingly honest—there’s no need for bells and whistles when you’re dealing with such skilled musicians and the eminently listenable lead vocals of Matthew Kowal.
Matthew and his harmonizing sister Cheyenne are what make Majestic such a subtly grand listen. He sounds like a sleepy, analog-version of Bob Seger (as opposed to the overly produced voice on the truck commercials) and her robust, bluesy backing vocals strike a sultry complement. The opening two tracks are perfect examples: “Anchor” is a sad acoustic strum that comes across as hopeful when Cheyenne joins the chorus, and “Fairly Natural” has a restrained jammy undertone that seems tailored to turn the siblings loose in a live setting.
Majestic isn’t built to knock your socks off—it’s an easy stroll, making its way with intelligent songwriting, textured acoustics and exceptional vocals to a sound that’s ultimately as genuine as the name. (Skylar Browning)
The Reals play Saturday, Sept. 2, at the Tour de Fat in Caras Park beginning at 11 AM, and then that evening at Sean Kelly’s beginning at 9 PM.
Rain City Shillers
Blood Dripping from a Six String
My Ruin Productions
Make no mistake: the blood here is dripping from an electric guitar plugged to an amp ratcheted up to 11. Rain City Shillers are unapologetically callow and unabashedly punk, and their fist-in-the-air debut follows reverentially in the footsteps of Rancid, The Germs and Social Distortion.
“Lobotomized” is the track that most immediately screams for attention on this nine-track effort from these self-described “YOUNG” Seattle-based rockers. In the ode to their favorite hometown dive, The Lobo Saloon, lead singer Ha-Ha (that’s what he calls himself) runs through a list of regulars, anoints the establishment with the chorus, “London’s got the Underground, L.A.’s got the Go-Go, New York CBGB’s, but Seattle’s got the Lobo,” before calling for 12 more Jaeger bombs. It no doubt brings down the Lolo whenever they play. Other memorable tracks include the deliciously blunt and spiteful rant on transplants, “Why Are You Here?” and the slow build of “Evan Williams Revival,” with its filthy lead guitar and barking vocals.
Rain City Shillers admit they’re not out to reinvent the punk wheel, and, sure enough, they don’t. But Blood Dripping from a Six String sure as hell gives it a good spin. (Skylar Browning)
Rain City Shillers play Feruqi’s Thursday, Sept. 7, at 10 PM. Joey Butta and Fuctones and Blood Factor 5 open. $5.