Kelly Joe Phelps’ Sky Like a Broken Clock is undoubtedly a fine effort. His rich gravelly voice is expressive and easy to listen to. His songwriting is subtle and carefully rendered with lyrics that appear piquant at first and hold up well to closer scrutiny. So why isn’t the record more exciting? I’m not sure. Perhaps it has something to do with what’s missing rather than what’s there.
Sky Like a Broken Clock is sure to draw comparisons to early Tom Waits and recent Richard Thompson. The comparisons are warranted, but the points where the comparisons break down are instructive. In the case of Tom Waits, Phelps is simply less weird and less funny; in the case of Thompson, less angry. Phelps does everything right, but it isn’t quite enough. His style of Blues and Celtic influenced singer-songwriting has become so identified with adult contemporary that just being good isn’t enough to pull the casual fan from his torpor.
None of this is to say that Sky Like a Broken Clock isn’t a worthwhile album. Aside from the virtues I’ve listed above, Phelps is an excellent guitar player. More than anything else, his skill with an acoustic six string is what makes him special. But to appreciate his guitar playing you’ll have to listen to the songs over and over; fans may want to, but I doubt the same is true of casual listeners.
Maybe my point amounts to a sad commentary on the pop audience, which I count myself part of. To me, the greatest part of pop music is the high wire struggle between creating something new and looking like an idiot. Sky Like a Broken Clock is too cocksure to grab me at that level. It offers the pleasure of viewing a master craftsman at work, but that pleasure isn’t quite enough.