Joel Phelps


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It's obvious from the opening notes of "The Way Down" that Joel R.L. Phelps is not going to try repeating the formula of his solo debut, Warm Spring Nights. On that album, the Downer Trio (which also includes bassist Robert Mercer and drummer William Herzog) created resonating tapestries of sound that mounted and disintegrated, driving the emotions of the songs. Maybe it was the three-year gap that brought about the change in sonics, but nonetheless, the album opener is striking. "The Way Down" begins with Phelps singing against an acoustic bass -- a moment both starker and more striking than anything on the debut. No drums kick in and neither does Phelps' guitar. Instead, a group of horns surround his vocal. The song has a deceptive fragility, failing to crumble when Phelps comes close to crushing it with his piercing tone. Nothing else on 3 is quite as startling, but the opener sets the tone for what follows. If there's a distinct flavor dominating the album, it's the sound of Phelps' acoustic guitar and the band's response to it. On some of 3's finest moments, this manifests itself in delicate pedal steel settings that replace the feedback. On "Always Glide," Herzog backs the music with sparse, country-style snare rim taps. The new environment is perhaps even better suited for Phelps' voice. Always capable of penetrating the surrounding sound and reaching the listener with a striking immediacy, it has a heightened intensity against the music of 3. As on Warm Spring Nights, the rhythm section manages to play like an extension of Phelps himself. The slow stops and starts and the subtly shifting dynamics of songs like "Give Me Back My Animal" seem to mirror perfectly the directions Phelps hopes to go.

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