When a blues- or folk-based singer/songwriter picks up a band and starts to explore different tones and textures, let alone electricity, critics usually herald the move as an artistic breakthrough. That's been the case with Kelly Joe Phelps, whose most recent album, Sky Like a Broken Clock (Ryko), finds him rocking, torching, brooding with a full band (including hired guns from Morphine and Tom Waits' band) and pushing his haggard, moaning folk/blues into the moodier limits of avant-garde folk/rock. But the core of the album remains Phelps' startling acoustic-guitar work -- though recognized as one of the most original slide players of our day, his cutting finger-style playing is just as mesmerizing -- and his searing, at times violently burning, voice: Phelps doesn't so much sing as he runs down the voodoo in every syllable, every melodic turn, every image of dark and light flashing and fading in his songs.
Phelps' interpretation of the blues, be it Dock Boggs' or Leadbelly's, is as deeply individual and idiosyncratic as Dylan's. He knows that the blues are least interesting as formal exercise; they're most alive when transfused with the singer's own vice and virtue, most faithful to tradition when a ravenous vision fights against that tradition. Phelps' creative quarrel with the blues has led him from a role as instrumentalist for some of our best songwriters (including Greg Brown, Townes Van Zandt and Jay Farrar) to a role, in a sense, that he alone owns: a haunted, daring alchemist of the blues at their most personal and poetic.