Kelly Joe Phelps's first three albums established the young guitarist as one of the guiding lights of slide playing, as well as a folk/blues songwriter of incredible passion and grace. All three -- 1994's Lead Me On
, 1997's Roll Away the Stone
, and 1999's Shine Eyed Mister Zen
-- were stripped-down showcases of Phelps's considerable gifts, illuminated in the glare of a single spotlight, as Phelps used his indie debut and major label follow-ups to document the naked beauty of his one-man live show. With his fourth album, Sky Like a Broken Clock
, Phelps and producer/Rykodisc President George Howard concoct a slightly different atmosphere, in which Phelps's songs can breathe. The idea of adding a bassist and drummer against whom Phelps could play came just after he began writing more lyrically focused songs, signaling a growth that necessitated a slight change in direction. Thankfully, Phelps and Howard haven't tinkered with Phelps's core sound to the extent that it's unrecognizable.
The bass and drums that accompany Phelps on Sky Like a Broken Clock come courtesy of two fine players -- Tom Waits bassist Larry Taylor and Morphine drummer Billy Conway, both of whom know a thing or two about subtlety and space. Phelps, feeling that he's thoroughly examined his slide talents, takes this opportunity to flesh out his songs and find his place in front of an ensemble. Although "Beggar's Oil" puts Phelps in familiar man-and-guitar territory, the rest of Broken Clock is a wildly successful transition from what he usually has done by himself. Taylor, Conway, cellist David Henry, and keyboardist Tom West all combine to make a sound that's as sparse and vulnerable as anything that Phelps has accomplished on his own and stays true to his dark and seductive sonic vision.