Brother Sinner & the Whale - Kelly Joe Phelps

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Brother Sinner & the Whale - Kelly Joe Phelps

1 CD(s) - Blues - Label: Black Hen Music - Distributor: Proper - Released: 20/08/2012 - 875531008371

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Review of "Brother Sinner & the Whale - Kelly Joe Phelps"

published 14/01/2017 | 2mennycds
Member since : 28/08/2015
Reviews : 287
Members who trust : 72
About me :
Best wishes to all, and thanks for your kind rates and comments, have been half-expecting the latest announcement for at least the last year. Have thoroughly enjoyed being a member over the last couple of years or so.
Pro Minimal arrangements, upbeat and more plaintive songs, soulful guitar
Cons Minimal sleeve notes
Quality and consistency of tracks
Cover / Inlay Design and Content
Value for Money

""Spit me outta...""

Brother Sinner & the Whale - Kelly Joe Phelps

Brother Sinner & the Whale - Kelly Joe Phelps

Soon after seeing TV footage of Kelly Joe Phelps playing at the Cambridge Folk Festival years ago, I bought his debut album, the great “Lead Me On.” I’ve reviewed that album here. In my opinion that album hasn’t been beaten, which isn’t so much a criticism of his later work as praise for that one. A number of years and several musical twists and turns later we find this album.


Kelly Joe Phelps comes from Washington State in the north-west of the USA. Initially his main acoustic guitar style was “lap style”. Instead of holding the instrument in the normal way, the guitar is balanced on the player’s lap, on its back with the strings facing upwards. This facilitates some very accurate and emotive playing by sliding a metal bar along one or several strings.

The sound is the same as when a player slips a metal or glass tube (or “bottleneck”; originally they were made from cut-down bottles) over a finger when holding the guitar in the traditional way, but the lap-style technique allows a much more nuanced playing style.

Kelly Joe later made songwriting his main focus, but has again refocused his attention on both playing and writing. He was born in 1959 and has had a number of personal as well as professional ups and downs over the years. This album seems to have sprung from a personal crisis and a return to his musical and religious roots.

The album

This album comes in the increasingly popular (though not with me!) card packaging. It's minimally arranged, with Kelly Joe playing and singing solo. My copy – I’m not divulging my source – carries an agent’s promotional label!
I find his voice just right for blues and blues-related songs. It has a slight natural huskiness that adds to the mood.
The album consists of 12 tracks and plays for 51 minutes. It comes with minimal accompanying notes but each track is illustrated with some graphics over which the title is displayed in various fonts.

The tracks

Most are vocal, and all but one ("I've Been Converted") are credited as original compositions, though "Guide Me O Thou Great Jehova" should also have been excluded. I'll make a few general observations.

Kelly Joe plays a variety of acoustic guitars; some songs feature a traditional wooden-bodied one, whilst others are accompanied on a resonator instrument.
In these, the sound is amplified by means of an aluminium cone (or cones) inside a wooden bodied (often termed a dobro) or a metal bodied instrument. The sound is very different from that of a traditional wooden bodied instrument and, at the risk of stating the obvious, it has a more metallic tone that many people would recognise.

I like the variety of instruments and sounds on the album. The minimal arrangement of all the songs may not be to all tastes, but I find it a distraction-free sound. It also adds an air of authenticity; this is how vintage blues and gospel were played and sung, after all.

For me, the strength of the appeal of this album is Kelly Joe's empathy with the lyrics and the tunes. This isn't a commercial replication of the sound and mood of 1920s blues and gospel; rather it represents, as stated on the artist's own website, a "return to his Christian roots". There's a sincerity and a conviction to the album.

The other appeal for me is the way the guitar interweaves with the vocal. Sometimes the guitar mirrors the vocal line; at others it plays licks behind it, and fills in with some lovely motifs. What sets Kelly Joe's playing apart, though, is the almost endless variations that he produces. Sometimes a lick is played several times over, but more typically the accompaniment and fills are variations and improvisations, and to my mind Kelly Joe weaves quite a spell.

Talkin to Jehova

starts the album. It's an upbeat tune, in keeping with the lyrics ("I been talkin' to Jehovah, and I believe...) As with many of the songs, the resonator guitar pauses and resumes from time to time to punctuate the lyrics, and at other times Kelly Joe plays a burst of notes, which I feel adds an unexpected twist and varies the rhythm.

Goodbye To Sorrow

is sung to a traditional acoustic guitar with a gentler sound. It has an upbeat, almost ragtime feel at times, and Kelly Joe sings with feeling and conviction. “I don't have to fight temptations on my own..."

Hope In The Lord To Provide

is a slower song accompanied on resonator guitar with a definite bluesy feel and rhythm. I like the licks Kelly Joe plays, and the combination of picked- and slide notes. I like the neat ending, too, played in free time and with a touch of dissonance.

Pilgrim's Reach

has a slow introduction, punctuated by some pauses. The tune is more haunting and plaintive, and so are the lyrics:

"My inner demons, now they don't like me at all,
they love to beat my heart to hell every time I fall...”

Spit Me Outta The Whale

is an instrumental inspired by the Bible's account of the prophet Jonah. I like the vocal tracks on this album, and as indicated already I feel that they express a variety of moods, but I do like this instrumental in its own right, and as added variety, too.

Guide me O Thou Great Jehovah

is a familiar tune to many from their schooldays. This version has more of a song than a hymn "feel", but I find it a lovely arrangement. Played on an acoustic guitar, the accompaniment is subtle and charming. Between some verses the guitar plays part of the melody as a fill, and there are some other lovely guitar fills between the sung lines, too.

Concluding comments

Its religious content may put some people off buying this album, but I think that anyone who likes acoustic blues, acoustic guitar or acoustic music with moving lyrics would enjoy listening to this. And, after all, it can always be sampled before buying.

The lyrics are truly moving, but at times the lyrics and the guitar weave a joint spell that I find absorbing. Granted, there are one or two songs that I like less than others, but overall I love it. I don't play it as often as I play some other CDs, but whenever I do, I wonder why I haven't listened to it more often. I don't tend to repeat play any of the songs, but that's just because I'm happy to listen to the next track, and the next, and I find the album quite entrancing.

I also like the fact that, whilst Kelly Joe doesn't lay on the emotion with a trowel, there's nothing contrived about the lyrics or the "feel" of the songs - it's all genuine.

My rating: 9/10; rounded up to 5 stars

Currently available from Amazon, hard copy £14.19, £6.49 download, and from just over £10.00 through their Marketplace.

Also recommended: Kelly Joe's wonderful first album, "Lead Me On". Hopefully I'll review this at some stage! "Shine Eyed Mr Zen" is a very worthwhile album, too. Kelly Joe has his own website,

There is an official Youtube clip produced by the recording label of "Down To The Praying Ground", recorded at the actual studio recording session for the album.

© 2mennycds 14 January 2017

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Comments on this review

  • raspberry_ripple published 06/03/2017
  • jo-1976 published 01/02/2017
    Enthusiastically reviewed
  • siberian-queen published 22/01/2017
    e review
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Product Information : Brother Sinner & the Whale - Kelly Joe Phelps

Manufacturer's product description

1 CD(s) - Blues - Label: Black Hen Music - Distributor: Proper - Released: 20/08/2012 - 875531008371

Product Details

EAN: 875531008371


Listed on Ciao since: 13/08/2012