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Joel RL Phelps: Bleak Songs Rock Hard

Joel RL Phelps' natural territory is a bleak one — desolate small towns and dead-end relationships, personal failure and the death of loved ones. Yet in his sixth album with the Downer Trio, he turns small-scale tragedies into triumphant rock anthems and rootsy laments.

Phelps has mastered the slow-rocking song, marrying viscous layers of guitar and propulsive rhythms with the kind of intensely honest, brutally emotive lyrics that often accompany ballads. Asked during a recent phone interview if it's difficult to maintain that kind of momentum and intensity in a downtempo song, Phelps gave a characteristically self-effacing answer:  "I guess like writing songs of any kind; it can be difficult to write a good one.

"Certainly Neil Young would be one of my favorites for that sort of thing," he continued.  "Silkworm [Phelps' former band] is also one of my favorites. They've done, in my opinion, stunning work on that front and on many others. So probably that's where my experience at trying my hand at that sort of thing comes from, was from playing with them. I still like to take a shot at it from time to time."

The son of a Methodist minister, Phelps grew up in small-town Montana, moving from place to place as his father was reassigned periodically. He took up guitar in junior high, fascinated at first by Kiss and Led Zeppelin. In 1985, he, Tim Midgett and Andy Cohen formed Ein Heit, a Missoula, Montana band that became the nucleus of Silkworm, founded two years later. Phelps appeared on Silkworm's first two albums before leaving in 1994.  

Phelps' next band was the Downer Trio which he put together in 1995 with William Hertzog (Citizens Utilities) on drums and Robert Mercer on bass. Initially intended as a one-time studio project, the Downer Trio took on an unexpected longevity. After recording Warm Spring Night in 1996, the band followed up with 3 two years later, and Blackbird in 1999. Inland Empires, released in 2001, is an album of mostly covers, including songs by Fleetwood Mac, Townes Van Zandt, Steve Earle and Iris DeMent, as well as the wrenching "Now You Are Gone," which chronicles Phelps' sister's suicide.

Customs, now out on Moneyshot in the U.S. (and 12XU in Europe), is an almost unbearably intense exploration of loneliness, mortality, interfamily relations, war, peace and small town life. Phelps's vocals — ranging from a whisper to an impassioned howl — are a big part of the album's impact, almost too honest, too nakedly direct to absorb comfortably.  

Consider "Shame," one of the new album's best tracks, with its crashing guitar chords and cracking-at-the-seams delivery of lines like "Shame/ Lend me your weapons." "Shame can be a very motivating influence, and I think that ... because of that, I think shame has often been experienced, at a certain point, it starts to be almost an empowering sort of emotion," said Phelps. "One of the things that occurs to people, at least to me, when I'm ashamed, what I most want is to act in response. And that impulse is kind of thrilling in a way... though the experience of it is... I don't really like it. But it does kind of call on somebody and tap them on the shoulder and say, what are you going to do? What are you going to do now? There's a real strong pull to act."  

"Shame" has the same sort of call to action, its series of ending chords feeling exactly like the indecision and anxiety that can motivate a shamed person to make a change. The final chord, repeated for over a minute, has been controversial, Phelps explained, causing at least one critic to complain of a false ending. "Describing that as a long period of false endings, to me, sort of missed the boat... [it] describes a trick," he said. "At least in my mind, it wasn't a false ending at all. It was an ending and it took many minutes to accomplish it. Which doesn't make it a good ending. It could be a really terrible ending. But that was the idea. I've listened to every Swans record ever made a thousand times, and one of the things that I really enjoy about those records — and some things that Shellac has done and lots of other folks — is just sort of this idea of repetition and placement of an idea that just comes over and over and over."  

Whether traditional or rock-oriented, Phelps's songs are shot through with a spirituality that, perhaps, reflects his early religious upbringing. "From Up Here" envisions a dying soldier moving toward the light, while the lovely "Mother I'm Waiting" contemplates a dance in the afterlife of a dying woman. In shuffling waltz time, the song depicts the deathbed vigil, with Phelps plaintively whispering "Mother I am waiting for you to be well" and acknowledging how unlikely that is. What saves "Mother I Am Waiting" from utter bleakness is its uplifting chorus, where mother and child dance to "the most beautiful music ever heard."  

"That song arose out of an experience that I had when someone very dear to me spent a great deal of time with her mother, who was dying," Phelps said. "We just had been in communication with each other as the process of the ending of that woman's life came about. It was not too long after my loss of my own sister, who had died in 1999. And so it just started kind of a process of thinking about the end of people's lives."  

Customs also includes country-flavored tracks like "Darla Don't Go" and "When Will We Bury You." Phelps said he came to traditional music relatively late, but learned to love it. "Traditional music is really powerful and it really appeals to me, and I — for a long time, I wanted to dip my toes in that kind of thing," he explained, while admitting somewhat ruefully that lovers of alt.country have, in general, rejected his efforts in this area.

"I guess it's hard to say exactly what the complaints are, aside from the enduring ones about all of the music that I've made... including with Silkworm, which is that my voice is screechy or something of that nature," he said. "So I don't really know what to make of that, but it doesn't really matter. I still find it appealing, and I get a big kick out of it. Out of that kind of music, so that's why I do it."  

Phelps said that he and his band are not currently touring in support of Customs, mostly because attempts to find a booking agent have fallen flat. Currently living in Vancouver, where his wife's family resides, he is concentrating, in his low-key way, on music. "I guess I'm just going to play and write songs as they come... same as always." — Jennifer Kelly [Thursday, August 26, 2004]

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