King of downer town
Joel R.L. Phelps & the Downer Trio drag into town
Most of the people who listen to Joel Phelps’ songs know an awful lot about his personal life. So, when they hear the words to track No. 6 on his 2001 EP Inland Empires, “Now You Are Found (1962-1999),” they’re already armed with the knowledge that his sister OD’d on heroin, and when the line “Goodbye to the poison/ and now you’re found” quietly trembles out, there’s no mistaking the fact that this is particularly rough stuff. And as the tiny images of the two siblings’ childhood leak out—"I stole Alice Cooper when I knew that you were gone…"—the palpable devastation is almost unbearable.
In many ways, the fact that the four albums Joel R.L. Phelps & the Downer Trio have released exist almost solely in the insulated world of indie rock makes their collective effect even more intimate and powerful.
Indie rock was invented for guys like Phelps and his trio. Not the style that term grew into, where well-read thrift-store hipsters could insulate themselves in quirky aloofness, but rather the independent infrastructure that lets musicians just make their music without worrying a whole lot about making things fit into the music industry’s limited number of boxes.
Joel Phelps doesn’t fit the rocker prototype. He’s more in the mold of a Leonard Cohen, not just because he’s similarly bent on giving the darker moments of life their confessional due, but also because, like Cohen, he’s in his own musical world, not tied to a scene or a movement or a record company’s marketing plan.
It’s been a decade since he left the band Silkworm just as it was making the jump to the super-indie label of Matador (Pavement, Cat Power, Liz Phair)—the extended touring part of the lifestyle proving too taxing—yet every profile since then still mentions Phelps as being “formerly of Silkworm.” The connection lingers as much due to the former group’s still being so highly regarded as it does to the fact that music writers have trouble wrapping their heads around the fact that someone wouldn’t want to live the rock dream of constantly being on tour.
Despite the gasps and whispers, Phelps began the Downer Trio project, collaborating with two Seattle musicians, drummer William Herzog and bassist Robert Mercer (Treasure State front man and brother of Shins vocalist/guitarist James Mercer), and continued on with the same sort of emotionally charged “downer” anthems he provided for Silkworm.
Phelps returns to Chico (again with bassist Mercer’s Treasure State) in support of his latest full-length, Customs (Moneyshot/12XU), which keeps the focus on people and the problems they’re presented. Phelps might not have the literary arsenal of a guy like Cohen, but the delivery, both from his expressive whisper-to-wail voice and the separate-but-equal dynamics of the trio, are as strong as ever on the album … and even more so live.