Joel R.L. Phelps is from Billings, Montana.
He started playing music in around 1982, co-founding a regionally infamous
post-punk group, Ein Heit, in Missoula in 1983. Ein Heit suspended operations
in 1987 and bandmates Phelps and Andrew Cohen then formed rock 'n' roll
ensemble Silkworm in 1988. After 3 LPs and many barnstorming national
tours, Phelps left Silkworm in 1994, perhaps due to the pressures of
all the travel, and perhaps some unconscious musical prompting. In a
split that can compared to a Buzzcocks/Magazine schism (except for the
lack of fame, money or any musical similarities), both parties would
go on to
their finest works --- Silkworm, having staked a claim as one of the
most important bands, Phelps, as the nation's most unique singer/songwriter.
Joel struck out on his own in 1995 forming his own group, The Downer
The Downer Trio feature William Herzog (primarily drums and bass, formerly
of Citizen's Utilities and Neko Case'ss touring band, as well as Jesse
Sykes & The Sweet Hereafter) and Robert Mercer (auxiliary guitar and
bass), musicians with a similar minimal
who, in truth, make the music really work. With four albums, two EPs
and two singles and some compilation appearances to their collective
the group has assembled an accomplished and formidable body of work:
no matter what the self-effacing Phelps might tell you to the contrary.
1998 full-length, Blackbird, was released in the UK for the first time
in March of 2001, with new artwork and bonus material not heard
the original release.
Blackbird LP/CD 12XU 002-1,2 LP/CD
2001 reissue of the 1999 classic CD from Montana raised, Seattle residing
Joel RL Phelps. The ex-Silkworm singer/songwriter, and his brilliant rhythm
section of Bill Herzog (Neko Case & Her Boyfriends) and Robert Mercer
make their full-length UK debut with a ferocious album including 4 bonus
tracks not available on the Pacifico's original version. (available on
vinyl for the first time anywhere).
Along with Mercer and Herzog, Phelps goes by the handle of The Downer
Trio, interchanging that name with his own both live and on record.
there's an agenda behind the name, and it is indicative of the music
that Phelps and co. make - but not entirely. And that appears to be
Phelps has long suffered the easy classification as an electrified Nick
Drake, a mopey, fatalistic Pollyanna in verse. But if you don't hear
in Phelps' songs, and take affirmation away from them, well, maybe you're
too happy to be bothered with such things.
More than any other Phelps release, 'Blackbird' is inspiring in its sadness,
soothing in its frontal guitar pummel. As you may have guessed by now,
'Blackbird' is Phelps' most paradoxical record to date - and even that's
a paradox, 'cause it's also his most direct statement since leaving his
former outfit, Silkworm, some 4 years ago.
From the cone-crunching opening notes of Blackbird's lead-off track "Then
Slowly Turn", to the desperate lilt of "Lost Continent" fans of the stand-up-and-be-counted
directness of seminal influences like Neil Young and The Who will do just
that. The Trio play with obvious urgency, a need to force the notes out
before they melt their insides. Instead, they'll melt your heart - if
you let them.
"at once tragic and tender, an epic expression of defeat that masterfully
underscores its despair with sweet strains of hope." - Colin Helms,
"...Crazy Horse ferocity and punk brevity...this versatile outfit
hasn't made a misstep yet." - Franklin Bruno, Puncture
"Joel R.L. Phelps has put out some of the most compelling 3:00am-
and- a- bottle- o'- booze music around." - Jeremy Schneyer, Pitchfork
Issue under license from Pacifico Recordings, Seattle, WA
Inland Empires EP
The music contained on the Inland Empires EP was captured over a year's
time, approximately June '99 through May 25th, 2000. The original assignment
was to record a number of cover songs Phelps and his U.S. label head Tim
Cook had discussed for many years, songs simply and efficiently; from
which "the best" or "the most appropriate" would be used to put to use
on a record. During that time, 40 or so songs were recorded in that fashion.
Six of the seven songs are cover versions. Phelps chose to record the
original composition "Now You Are Found (1966-1999)" as his contribution
to this collection. "Now You Are Found" is a bittersweet, mournful, and
ultimately powerful piece of songwriting, sure to be recalled as among
Phelps' finest single moments.
Other songs included on the EP are by Christine McVie, Townes Van Zandt,
Iris DeMent, Steve Earle, and The Go-Betweens (Robert Forster/Grant McLennan).
As a whole the EP functions nicely as a group; a compelling theme throughout
the work is evident and effective. The music is most often Spartan in
arrangement and performance, and exists without any conscious attempt
to conform to any convention for the sake of inclusion. It is not as if
Joel and group shun any attempt at having a modest "hit" of any kind,
it's just that the music is easily good enough for any knowledgeable music
fan to appreciate. That is to say: a music fan with any taste.
Phelps' interpretive skills are on full display here, and will receive
another outing later this spring with a limited edition 12" featuring
equally intense renditions of Joy Divisionís "Twenty-Four Hours" and The
Chillsí classic "Pink Frost". With the subsequent UK reissue of Blackbird,,
live dates are planned. Songwriting Credits:
1. Songbird (Christine McVie) © 1977 Gentoo Music inc. Originally available
on Fleetwood Mac's Rumors (Warner Bros., 1977).
2. Our Mother the Mountain (Townes Van Zandt) Silver Dollar Music/Bug
Music, ASCAP. Originally available on Our Mother the Mountain (Tomato,
3. Calling For You (Iris DeMent) © 1994 Songs of Iris, ASCAP. Originally
available on Iris DeMent's My Life (Warner Bros., 1994).
4. Someday (Steve Earle) ASCAP. Originally available on Steve Earle's
Guitar Town (MCA, 1986).
5. Apology Accepted (Forster/Mclennan) Complete Music, Ltd. Originally
available on The Go-Betweens' Liberty Belle and the Black Diamond Express
(Beggars Banquet, 1986).
6. Now You Are Found [1962-1999] (Joel R.L. Phelps) Fin Songs, ASCAP.
7. My Life (Iris DeMent) © 1994 Songs of Iris, ASCAP. Originally available
on Iris DeMent's My Life (Warner Bros., 1994).
Other: Inland Empires was recorded live and mastered by Troy Glessner
at Spectre Studio, Seattle, WA. The Downer Trio is: William Herzog (Bass
& Drums), Robert Mercer (Guitar and Bass), Joel R.L. Phelps (Guitar, Vocal).