Music Quarterly

Longing for Night

Meet the Producers

What Remains

Armstrong's Revenge


Highway Ambition

Riding the Fader

The Past Takes It Back

Riding the Line


Forget the Producer

Allan Steed's Little Boom Box

When She Backs Up She Beeps


Let's Get Ready to Rumble

The Two Together Couldn't Ruin It

TV Without Pictures

Prank #3: Fan vs. Band Vengeance

One Hundred Shades of Blue

Loud Motherfucker

Same Shade of Blue

Touch That Dial

Prank #4: Band vs. Audience Vengeance


CD Review Revue

Among the Ghosts

Prank #5: Intra-Band Vengeance

Que venga la noche

Movie Review Revue

Fan Mail: An End to the Discussion

In 1996, the newly decamped singer of Silkworm, Wyoming native Joel R. L. Phelps, released his first solo album with the band that would come to be known as the Downer Trio. Largely unacknowledged, Warm Springs Night was one of the finest and most original records of its decade. A CD-only release from the tiny Seattle label El Recordo, its jewel-box insert is a gorgeously blurry foldout of simple images: a child's silhouette in negative; a dog; a horse. The disc itself is black, displaying only the identifying legend ELRO 3.

The record opens from a point of stillness after some great crime or injury--"Better not leave the curbside/Better look sharp for trouble in the road" ("Counsel")--and builds to a crescendo of voice, horns, and drums that rises from and sinks back into a field of haunting tintinnabulation. Each band member lays down a phrase, one after the other, a game of musical War that assumes a geostratic finality, out of the following silence of which Phelps returns to whisper over a Hank Williams strum, "Oh, Delilah, put your weapon down...."

The songs form an intermittent narrative, possibly of disparate scenes over years in the chaotic life of just one woman. There is no lyric sheet; Phelps' fan webpage hazards some unlikely guesses at many of the words sung here. The songs seethe like the air at a séance. Our daily reality and its meanings lie around them like objects in a dark room behind a glowing television: "Have you seen her at the island/Where the Interstaters meet/Have you seen her by the roadside/Where the asphalt meets the winter wheat...."

This record simply denies the existence of daytime as if it's a scientific impossibility. At the heart of it all is the title song, the key being the fact that Warm Springs is the site of a Wyoming sanitarium. Night is magical because it conceals so much, with possibility swelling in the dark corners. Madness is life made irreducible--what strange freedom, to have lost everything--and the music becomes a space in which thoughts swim smoothly out of the dark and back into it: When this record came out, I'd had my wisdom teeth removed and managed to extend my painkiller prescription into nearly a month's recreational supply. All the rest of that winter I lay on the floor of the house my death-money had bought, my own last living relative, goosed to the gills on beer and Percocet and listening to this record again and again, floating in that dark heaven where everything seemed alive.

Phelps is not about counteracting or even standing up to the despair and tragedy that predominate this dark space he has created: What he offers is that beautiful re-lease of hope, the surrender to the element of sadness we live in finally, like air, the moonlight on the asylum grounds, the shelf where the broken people are set. "How can you wait at the end of the plank?/Your sidekick's passed out with his face on the tank." Phelps' whisper rises to a howl and descends again to offer its final summation; we are unsure whether we are hearing about one patient's intake procedure or the devastating memory that necessitates letting the whole world swing free: "I can still hear the sound as his brains hit the wall/Warm Springs night."

In its unflinching bleakness, the band sounds like a country-western Joy Division, say, fronted by the great poet of suicide and insanity Weldon Kees. A performance this powerful is usually a one-time event: Sister Lovers seemed to drain Alex Chilton to idiocy; the vision behind In Utero was so powerful it sucked Kurt Cobain right out of the world. Not much else in the history of rock cuts this deep and dark.

The lee side to Warm Springs Night offers one rich piece after another but the mission is already complete. Before the disc closes with "OK Reno," its low hum like a boiler in the basement of a tenement, Phelps' oracle predicts, over a martial drumbeat, an unavoidable, devastated future: "Ladies and gentlemen/There is not enough.../The operator's dead/The operator's dead" ("There Is Not Enough").

In Phelps' night there is a refuge, but no denial, from the Voyagers, Pathfinders, and Cherokees crowding and despoiling the holy West, the impermanence of love and the aloneness that is the last thought and that will swallow it all.