How‘s this for irony: last year, I opened my review of Pesky J Nixon‘s latest album by asking why the album existed. I explained that the band had recorded all but one of the album’s songs before, but that now the songs had the full arrangements the band had always intended. Now, I have before me Magnetic Skyline by Corinne West and Kelly Joe Phelps. Corinne West has recorded all eight of the album’s songs before, but now the arrangements are stripped down to just two acoustic guitars and two voices. And it works.
The press materials for this one talk about a true musical partnership, but I think it is fairer to say that working with Kelly Joe Phelps has allowed West to find her voice as a musician. This is Corinne West’s album all the way. She wrote six of the eight songs, and she takes lead vocals on all of the songs. She sings in a clear alto with lots of subtle colorations. Phelps handles background vocals, and usually sings on the choruses only. I can’t be sure, but I believe the instrumental roles are the reverse of that; Phelps plays lead, while West provides solid rhythmic support. But that is a bit of an oversimplification. One of the joys of Magnetic Skyline is the way the two guitars interact with each other, with their parts intertwining. Phelps does a great job of blending vocally with West, so these are two musicians functioning as one. But, if they continue to work together in the future, I would love to hear some songs chosen by Phelps.
That said, Magnetic Skyline is what it is, and the results are very fine. Corinne West is a fine songwriter. Her lyrics have a strong visual component, almost like musical paintings at times. For the two covers on the album, West has chosen two songs by Joe Tomaselli. I have never heard of him before, but these are great songs. Each is a finely wrought character portrait. Horseback in My Dreams presents a factory worker who yearns for a very different life, while Amelia is a woman living among coal miners who bears up for an entire community. Corinne West’s characters are equally well drawn, but she uses details of their appearance to let us get to know them, where Tomaselli uses the details of their stories. The contrast in styles strengthens what would have been a fine album in any case. Mother to Child is a lullaby that should become a classic. The mother’s love comes through so clearly, and the song has a wonderful tenderness, but is never cloying. Lady Luck has some of the best guitar work on the album. The song has a mystical quality to it, and an ambiguous ending. Was it good luck or bad? It’s left for the listener to decide. River’s Fool has some of the best visual writing on the album in its lyrics.
So a group of already fine songs are set free here by the stripped down arrangements, and by the magical interplay of two very fine musicians. I am left wanting to hear more from them, especially some new songs. Maybe Kelly Joe Phelps will choose some of the songs and sing lead on them next time. Or maybe not. Either way, it will be worth hearing.
Corinne West & Kelly Joe Phelps: Mother to Child
Corinne West &Kelly Joe Phelps: Lady Luck