Release Date: May 11, 2010
Record label: Dead Oceans
Genre(s): Indie, Rock
On the road again Last year, Phosphorescent braintrust Matthew Houck released a tribute to Willie Nelson featuring eleven well-chosen covers that avoided obvious hits and sentiments. He and his honkytonk band have obviously learned from that endeavor: The songs on their gorgeously sadsack follow-up Here’s to Taking It Easy evoke lost days and lonely nights with keen observations and road-weary melodies. “Baby, all these cities, ain’t they all startin’ to look all the same?” Houck laments on the rip-roaring opener “It’s Hard to Be Humble (When You’re from Alabama),” as the horn section roars ahead with trucker’s speed and the pedal steel somehow evokes both Junior Brown and My Bloody Valentine.
Though he’s no longer covering Willie Nelson, Matthew Houck’s latest release finds him settling deeper in the Red Headed Stranger’s territory. Recorded with the same band that delivered To Willie, Here’s to Taking It Easy rests in the lines between love and heartache, celebration and mourning—and all of it is draped in a muted, silo-high production that cuts the hard edges off the record’s darker moments. MARTY GARNER .
In 2009, Phosphorescent released To Willie, an album dedicated to covering songs written or popularized by Willie Nelson. At the time it seemed like a stylistic sidetrack-- not only did Phosphorescent mastermind Matthew Houck dig more deeply into traditional country music than ever before, a few of his interpretations also evinced far more playfulness and fun than any of his original offerings. Surely, the next proper Phosphorescent effort would find Houck returning to the forlorn wilderness folk he'd howled out on his first three albums though, right? Not so fast: To Willie turned out to be more harbinger than lark.
It’s amazing that I’m already starting to fall into a rut. Phosphorescent, in their new album Here’s To Taking It Easy, does no wrong with mostly slow tracks decorating what is essentially a laid back alternative, somewhat soft rockish sound. There is a quiet and formidable talent in their music, something unassuming yet definitely present laces I Don’t Care If There’s Cursing and Nothing Was Stolen (Love Me Foolishly), so much so as to garner themselves a place in my continually less exclusive “Five Stars” playlist.
Look closely at the cover of Phosphorescent's – aka Matthew Houck's – fourth album, and you'll find what looks like a snarling wolf floating menacingly above a hazy photo of palm trees. This idea of something sinister never being far from the surface runs throughout Houck's first full-band album; his crumpled, Neil Youngesque croon wearily mumbling lyrics such as "Apart from the things I touched, nothing got broke all that much," on the gauzy country of Nothing Was Stolen (Love Me Foolishly). The closing Los Angeles works as the perfect summary of an album that constantly mixes tragedy with beauty, but ends with hope.
Matthew Houck didn't exactly need a band to make his records. Despite recording most of it himself, Pride (his third full-length, released in 2007) was about as expansive and lush as music that lonesome can get. So we all knew he could put some hefty layers into his songs on his own. But something happened when he brought the band into the studio with him on last year's To Willie.
On Matthew Houck’s (aka Phosphorescent) last all-original full length album, 2007’s Pride, Houck looked inward to his own personal struggles and chose to record the album entirely on his own. Since then, Houck has opened up a bit more, working with a full band on his 2009 Willie Nelson tribute album, To Willie, and incorporating that full band sound on his latest album, Here’s to Taking It Easy. Opening track “It’s Hard to Be Humble (When You’re From Alabama)” serves as a perfect reminder as to why Phosphorescent can now be considered more of a band instead of Houck’s personal singer/songwriter vehicle.
I guess it’s ironic that the first song on Here’s To Taking It Easy filled me with dread. It wasn’t that it’s not a good song — “It’s Hard To Be Humble (When You’re From Alabama)” actually packs quite a punch — it was that Matthew Houck seemed so thoroughly to have abandoned that woozy, otherworldly echo that characterized his most recent record of original material, 2007’s immaculate Pride. That album meant so much to me — the thundering cadence of “At Death, A Proclamation” seemed literally taken from my own experience (it features a field recording done of my own college marching band’s drumline) — that the idea of an artist, even one I loved so much, moving on from that compositional place was a scary one, however relaxed the album’s name might be.
Matthew Houck may operate out of the too-cool-for-school, New York City indie rock community, but the Alabama-born mastermind behind Phosphorescent has a muse that clearly resides in warmer climates. A breezy, classic rock-tinged collection of heartbreak road ballads nursed into existence on a steady diet of the Eagles and the Band, Here's to Taking It Easy, the first Phosphorescent release to rely on musicians other than Houck, plays like a lost piece of vinyl from the early '70s. Houck is a generous, earnest songsmith, and his tales of love on the rocks (“Tell Me Baby [Have You Had Enough]”), love lost (“Heaven, Sittin’ Down”), and love of the South (“It's Hard to Be Humble [When You're From Alabama]”) feel lived in and cared for.
On Phosphorescent's sixth album, leader Matthew Houck dials down his eccentricities and embraces a style of post-classic rock that for the first time skews closer to radio-friendly Americana than forlorn folk. Perhaps that's due to his adopted band, capable players who sway easily between Willie Nelson Mexi-folk, as on It's Hard To Be Humble (When You're From Alabama), and sprawling Crazy Horse guitar heroics, as on Los Angeles. [rssbreak] Houck's quirkiness does rear its head on the odd, minimal gospel number Hej, Me I'm Light.
There was a time when the only occasion you would see a human wearing a checked country shirt in the flesh was when Green on Red crossed the pond (which they never did) or at UK line-dancing contests. Now they are ubiquitous, from George at Asda to ATP (especially for those who manage to find themselves straddling both illustrious categories). These days, the selection of alt.country is as diverse as said shirts, in that they have both entered post-hip territories.
Lazy, hazy Americana and exquisitely crafted folk-pop songs. Leonie Cooper 2010 It’s hard to believe that Matthew Houck – the one-man band otherwise known as Phosphorescent – is based in New York. Upon hearing his latest dose of lazy, hazy Americana, the fact that he was born in Alabama comes as no shock. The wide open heartland of the South rings out throughout these nine tracks, but the taut urban tussle of New York? Sonically it doesn’t even get a look in, despite the fact that in tracks like The Mermaid Parade – about Coney Island’s yearly procession of aquatic freaks – it holds its own in the lyrics.
What happens to a musician’s art once his life is informed by working a day job? Especially when life drastically morphs into a tumultuous frenzy of ceaseless touring and constant separation from loved ones? Matthew Houck, one of the past few years’ most under-appreciated alt-folk aficionados, presents his latest, Here’s To Taking It Easy, as an ode to a life categorically altered by the complications and demands of being a touring musician. After 2005’s Aw Come Aw Wry blended the tradition learned from Willie Nelson and Neil Young with the eccentricity and progressive explorations of Will Oldham and Jeff Mangum, Houck continued down a similar road for 2007’s Pride, a contemplation that further exhibited his ability to layer and arrange vocals in a series of haunting gospel-inspired folk songs. Here’s To Taking It Easy stands as a triumphant proclamation of Phosphorescent’s ongoing ability to provide quality heartbreaking Americana.
Bettye LaVette Bettye LaVette fights familiarity on “Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook” (Anti). Ms. LaVette, 64, now rivals Aretha Franklin as her generation’s most vital soul singer. She uses every scrape, shout and break in her raspy voice, with a predator’s sense of timing, to seize the drama of a song.