Joel RL Phelps & The Downer Trio

(photography by David Ewald)


Coming September 17 – ‘Gala’, the first new album from Joel RL Phelps & The Downer Trio since 2004’s ‘Customs’, a record praised by Pitchfork’s Stephen M. Deunser for it’s “darkly existential drama and gravity”. On the Troy Glessner – recorded ‘Gala’, Joel, guitarist/bassist Robert Mercer & drummer William Herzog have returned with what might be their most powerful work to date. There are very few songwriters on this continent that can rival the former Silkworm guitarist/vocalist Phelps, and his lyrical & instrumental prowess is as keen as ever.

Recorded in 2013 at Spectre (Seattle) ; 12 new songs. First 200 copies on clear 150gr. vinyl. Preorder yours here.

UK/EU customers can order ‘Gala’ from Damnably.
Canadian customers can order the album from Triple Crown Audio Recordings .

Joel RL Phelps writes songs about regular people suffering through the direst situations: wrong-intentioned wars, social upheaval, crippling poverty, not to mention the everyday trials of romantic fallout and family illness. But rather than inspiring Springsteen-ian story songs, these predicaments add a darkly existential drama and gravity.  – Stephen Deusner, Pitchfork, May 2004

“Kelly Grand Forks” (MP3) – from ‘Customs’

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 pressure of all the travel, and perhaps some unconscious musical prompt. 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 U.S.ís most important bands, Phelps, as the nationís most unique singer/songwriter. Joel struck out on his own in 1995 forming his own group, The Downer Trio. The Downer Trio feature William Herzog (primarily drums and bass, formerly of Citizenís Utilities, currently of Neko Case’s touring band) and Robert Mercer (auxiliary guitar and bass), musicians with a similar minimal sensibility who, in truth, make the music really work. With three albums, two EP’s and two singles and some compilation appearances to their collective credit, the group has assembled an accomplished and formidable body of work: no matter what the self-effacing Phelps might tell you to the contrary. Their 1998 full-length, Blackbird, was released in the UK for the first time in March of this year, with new artwork and bonus material not heard on 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. Sure, 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 the point. Phelps has long suffered the easy classification as an electrified Nick Drake, a mopey, fatalistic Pollyanna in verse. But if you don’t hear inspiration 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 it 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 secedingf rom 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, CMJ

“…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 Division’s “Twenty-Four Hours” and The Chills’ classic “Pink Frost”. With the subsequent UK reissue of Blackbird,, live dates are planned. Songwriting Credits:

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).