Saturday, June 12, 2010

The Owl & the Pussycat

At daybreak they stopped at the ocean
Took a walk as they watched the sun rise
In the palm of God's hand
They rolled in the sand
As the lazy foam danced in the tide

Corinne West, "The Road to No Compromise"

Though it's only an EP of six songs*, one of them a cover, this record is full of little mysteries and illuminations. I've been an on and off fan of Kelly Joe Phelps since his first record; Corinne West's name meant nothing to me until recently, though she's released three earlier CDs. They met late last year and are now touring together; whether they're "a couple" I have no idea but musically their alliance seems to have benefited both parties, Kelly Joe by bringing him down to earth and smoothing out some of his eccentricities, Corinne West by giving her songs (all of which she has recorded before) the fire and momentum lent by Kelly Joe's guitar playing, which has never been less than brilliant even when, in the past, some of his own material tended to be a little opaque. Compare the fairly tame version of "The Road to No Compromise" on Corinne's first record to the one on Magnetic Skyline and you'll appreciate the difference. His playing here is driving and relentless but never obtrusive.

But give full credit to Corinne West for her songwriting. In the week or so since this record arrived I've given repeated listens to "Whiskey Poet," "Mother to Child," and the other tracks and I keep finding more things hidden in their depths; since some of them first appeared almost ten years ago when she must have been pretty young she clearly has a gift. Time after time some little detail leaps out, like the brilliant and unexpected last line of "The Road to No Compromise."

To the lost child the road is a cradle
For the outlaw the road's where you hide
Takin' you in
You travel again
'Till blindness becomes sight

As for the title of this post, it first struck me when I was listening to this song that some of the stanzas seemed to capture the deft touch and rhythms of Edward Lear's timeless nursery rhyme, which ends, for those who don't remember it from their childhoods or those of their children, as follows:

They dined on mince, and slices of quince,
Which they ate with a runcible spoon;
And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand,
They danced by the light of the moon,
The moon,
The moon,
They danced by the light of the moon.

Then it came to me that both compositions were, in the end, about lovers setting out together to find their place in the world, and even though Corinne West's song was written long before she and Kelly Joe Phelps met, Kelly Joe makes a very fine owl, though, things being different in our day, he's not the only one crooning over a "small guitar." I'm not a believer in metempsychosis, but I find appealing the idea that the wandering shade of Edward Lear, stranded in 21st-century California, might temporarily have made its abode in the body of a young woman writing a road song.

(By the way, kudos to the designer of the packaging,, for the clever emblem containing the musicians' names. It's made to look like an old soda bottle cap; the back cover reproduces several antique bottle caps, made to appear as if they were affixed "magnetically" to a metal surface, possibly a weathered refrigerator magnet.)

*Soon to be expanded to a full album to be released by Tin Angel in the UK, reportedly in September 2010.

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