"Where else would you go when you have an ax to grind?"

Friday, May 23, 2003

my latest from the Daily Yomiuri


Kevin Wood / Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer


Slingshot Professionals

Rykodisc, 2,177 yen

Slingshot Professionals is the fifth full-length album from Washington-born singer-songwriter-guitarist extraordinaire Kelly Joe Phelps. Stylistically, it follows the path laid out by 2001's Sky Like a Broken Clock, with long dramatic story-songs and impressionistic lyrics balancing Phelps' driven-yet-restrained acoustic slide guitar.

Phelps delivers a shot of intimate blues filtered through jazz and the virtuoso folk of performers such as Bert Janch, with a generous chaser of Tom Waits. The result is something reminiscent of an acoustic Dire Straits playing Leonard Cohen songs. However, to pigeonhole this music would be wrong.

Singer-songwriters often succumb to the pitfalls of their avocation, becoming too personal, taking themselves too seriously and becoming pretentious, emphasizing lyrics at the expense of instrumental work, or, as is often the case with virtuoso players, showing off their chops at the expense of the song. Many are just too whiny, too wimpy or too self-involved to be appealing.

Phelps is none of these things. His lyrics are mysterious, evocative and telling, never trite. His guitar work is restrained and subtle with just enough flash and testicular fortitude to grab the ears of the most dedicated guitar fan. To the credit of producer Lee Townsend, the music is seamless and polished but without any hint of affect or slickness. The addition of jazz guitarist Bill Frissel, a longtime Townsend collaborator, simply makes more of a good thing.

This is not an album you are likely to put on first thing in the morning unless you've been up all night. It's intense and energetic, but not in a bouncy, get-up-and-dance kind of way. Slingshot Professionals is impassioned, but never loud, and rootsy without any Nashville twang to it. It is a very rare thing: A record that contains no cheese of any kind. A sort of CD equivalent to those stay-up-until-sunrise conversations you had with your best friends back when none of you had to worry about working the next morning.


LeRoy's Swing

Buffalo Records, 2,500 yen

This album, the result of a single live session by the Austin, Texas, quintet Les Niglos and released under the name of lead guitarist Dave Biller for pronunciation-driven reasons of social sensitivity, is not to be missed by fans of jazz guitar giant Django Reinhardt.

According to Biller, Les Niglos was originally formed by the members to have some some fun playing the music of their hero, Reinhardt.

Both the sense of fun and the overwhelming influence of Reinhardt on the band are very evident on LeRoy's Swing. Of the 13 tracks, four are Reinhardt compositions and six are songs the famous gypsy jazz guitarist often covered, including '30s hot jazz standards like "Tea for Two," "Sheik of Araby" and "Japanese Sandman." The remaining three tracks written by Biller blend so perfectly with the other material as to be almost indistinguishable.

The decision to name the band for Biller is a sensible one, as it is really his guitar playing that is showcased. Clarinetist Ben Saffer plays Stephane Grappeli to Biller's Reinhardt, and the addition of a reed to the string ensemble gives the group a warmer, smoother sound. Bassist Ryan Gould and guitarists Anthony Locke and Jeff Seaver make up the airtight rhythm section.

If Reinhardt and Grappeli with the original Hot Club of France Quintet were a blazing bonfire, then Biller and Saffer are the same fire a few hours later. The flames may not leap quite as high, but that allows us to stand closer and enjoy the warmth more.

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