[18 February 2014]
For most people who grew up outside of the greater Montana area, singer-songwriter Joel RL Phelps entered the radar through his tenure in the Missoula-founded indie-rock juggernauts Silkworm. After leaving Silkworm somewhat acrimoniously in the middle of the 1994 tour behind their third release Libertine, Phelps released an solo record and 7” under his own name the following year, then pared his backing band down to drummer Bill Herzog and bassist Robert Mercer to form the Downer Trio in 1997. An eponymous Downer Trio EP followed, as did five full-lengths and another EP in the coming decade. Freed from the constraints of being but one of three great songwriters in a band, Phelps shone as a solo artist. Aided and abetted by Herzog and Mercer, his alternately low and keening vocals soon garnered the Downer Trio an international following and tours with likes of Low, Mark Eitzel, and Will Oldham followed.
The last decade has found Phelps living in Vancouver, B.C. and largely inactive musically. His cohorts in the Downer Trio plied their trade in a host of other projects, including Sunn O))) and Treasure State. Phelps’ downtime occurred shortly after the tragic passing of his ex-Silkworm compatriot Michael Dahlquist. Whether that is a coincidence or whether his return was in any part precipitated by the recent notoriety afforded Silkworm in the wake of the recent documentary Couldn’t You Wait remains to be seen, but the return of Phelps certainly seems a timely one. Gala comes courtesy of 12XU Records, in the wake of a bumper crop of new and re-released Silkworm affiliated product. Most of the releases come courtesy of former My Pal God label proprietor Jon Soloman and his new(ish) Comedy Minus One imprint. The New Jersey label recently digitally re-released Libertine as well as his first solo release Warm Springs Night.
Like his former Silkworm bandmates currently plying their trade as Bottomless Pit, Phelps has not strayed far from the musical path he established so many years previously. The Downer Trio is a darkly beautiful unit whose strengths are bedrocked in their knowing when not to play. Spartan, supportive, and never obtrusive, the band alternates between pastoral acoustic tracks like “So You’ve Decided” and more excoriating fare like “Ursus”. Gala finds the Phelps pen and voice in fine fettle. The song content can hardly be described as light, but there is a bit more optimism than one can claim to be found in any one of the previous Phelps releases. The opening “The Nashville Sound” is cut from the same raucous cloth as previous uptempo Phelps fare like “Goodbye Kelly Grand Forks” and “I’ve Got a Live One”, but longtime fans can rest assured that there is an equal amount of the more Spartan brooding fare you’ve come to expect from our dear Mr. Phelps. Regardless of tempo or tone, Gala is a fine return to the scene for Joel RL Phelps and the Downer Trio. In fact, Gala seems to be the natural extension of 2004 release Customs/Traditions. One would be tempted to claim Gala is a return to form, but truth be told, while Joel RL Phelps has lain fallow over the past decade, he doesn’t appear to have lost a step.