Phosphorescent until recently was pretty much just Matt Houck, but over the last few years, particularly since the release of the 2009 Willie Nelson covers record To Willie, the moniker has really been just as much about the ample company Matt Houck keeps as much as the man himself. The solid full-band grounding has really molded Houck’s song into beautifully sculpted country-rock nuggets, replete with the hazy harmonies and vaguely psychedelic bent that had been Phosphorescent’s calling card all along–beautiful melodies paired with a distinct texture and aural vibe. So on their latest, even though Houck’s Willie Nelson-meets-Neil Young vocal style is still very much the star of the show, his backing band is stealing quite a bit of his thunder.
No where is this more evident than the opening number, a rollicking road tune called “It’s Hard To Be Humble (When You’re From Alabama).” Driven by a jaunty pedal steel line and some boisterously incessant horns that dominate the sonic space of the song, there is barely room for Houck’s dragging, hesitant vocals to elbow their way in. The purposeful contrast between the excitement-filled musical arrangement and the singer’s road-weary sentiments (“baby all these cities ain’t they all starting to look all the same”) is an elegant approach to aurally painting the life of a touring machine–you do for the obvious, fervent love of the music, but its easy to lose your mind on that endless highway.
The record starts off with Phosphorescent as close to a honky-tonk/bar band as they can get and, while they still make great music in that framework, the best is yet to come. The next couple of tunes sound much more like the casually epic ballads they performed so well on To Willie, full of dream-pop harmonies and instruments doused in reverb and echo, the combined effect of which is to make fairly straightforward alt. country sound otherworldly. This is sort of their standard approach, and I doubt many people would quibble with them staying in that comfort zone.
A couple of songs on the record do throw a couple of curveballs–“The Mermaid Parade,” which is likely the best song on the record, is a more rock n’ roll number featuring some urgent guitar work and a vaguely indie rock feel, while “Hej, Me I’m Light” is a rhythmic, chant-driven song that feels like an African-flavored dream-pop meets freak-folk number. The last track is also a slow-burning, Neil Young-style guitar workout that reminds me of what I always wished Red House Painters sound like. Anyway, this is a gorgeous, beautiful record that ,right now, sits near the top of my Best Of list for 2010.
Here is an acoustic performance of Houck doing a Willie Nelson cover. None of this record really sounds like this performance, but here it is nonetheless…