Release Date: Feb 3, 2009
Record label: Dead Oceans
Genre(s): Indie, Rock, Alternative, Folk
Singer/songwriter Matthew Houck of Phosphorescent infamy has carried the unfortunate "poor man's Will Oldham" tag from Athens, Georgia, to his Bed-Stuy neighbourhood in Brooklyn. Although he might not completely shake it with this after-hours love letter to Willie Nelson - a clever rejoinder to Nelson's own heartfelt Lefty Frizzell homage, To Lefty - the appropriately hungover honky-tonk renditions of Nelson's lesser-known 70s bar closers could introduce Phosphorescent to a whole new audience who know not of Bonnie Prince Billy. The Alabama-born Houck knows his way around this music well enough to walk the fine line between respect and reverence as he delivers impassioned readings of Can I Sleep In Your Arms and Too Sick To Pray and kicks out a freewheeling rip through I Gotta Get Drunk with the appropriate tinge of self-loathing.
If a cover song is an open letter from an artist to the originator, an entire album of covers is the equivalent of a bouquet of flowers and a shy smile. Matthew Houck, better known as the voice of Phosphorescent, has given Willie Nelson (and the rest of us) a gorgeous, shimmering gift in To Willie. It continues a chain Nelson started when he offered To Lefty from Willie, his own musical love letter to Lefty Frizzell.
Saying Phosphorescent's tribute album to Willie Nelson is redolent of history is an understatement -- besides the subject of the album itself, the title acts as a specific reference to Nelson's own 1975 tribute to Lefty Frizzell, To Lefty from Willie. There's a danger of well-meaning overkill and clinging associations at work as a result, which the album has to struggle through. Still, it's also an interesting sign of just how much certain goal posts in the world of indie rock have changed over time -- the fascination with older, more "real" country has been present since the days of X and the Blasters, to name two bands out of many, and Nelson's own well-established outsider/outlaw image is a perfect one to hang one's hat on.
As a general rule, cover albums are always an awful idea. There's really no better way for an artist or band to smudge an otherwise laudable career than for them to assemble a collection of bland, uninspired rehashings of the songs that influenced their own work - just ask Rage Against the Machine or, more recently, James Taylor. However, on his new album, entitled To Willie, the Brooklyn-based alt-country artist Matthew Houck, aka Phosphorescent, proves that there are exceptions to almost every rule and that the term "cover album" doesn't have to be synonymous with swill.
Brooklyn songwriter cherry picks Nelson's catalog just rightBrooklyn-relocated Athens, Ga., artist Matthew Houck picked Nelson's saddest tracks for this tribute, which fits his own discography. Nelson's more riotous tunes would ring false for Phosphorescent, but most of these move with a reserved grace. Houck's band adds authentic country textures to the tracks, and Ricky Ray Jackson's pliable steel guitar transforms songs like "Walkin'" into folk hymns and waltzes, more concerned with plainspoken charm than boasting and boozing.
Not many singers have mastered the folky frail, warm warble like Matthew Houck. Under the moniker of Phosphorescent, Houck has released three notable LPs full of delicate yearning and humble heartwarmers. His music has a red-wine warmth to it steeped in the tradition of folk crooners, from Dylan through to Oldham. Very appropriate then that he should turn his attention to tackling one of the great troublatours, Willie Nelson; indeed, dedicate a whole album to covering the great country maestro.
Loney Dear Loney Dear, the one-man studio band of the Swedish songwriter Emil Svanangen, sounds frantically, claustrophobically forlorn on its fifth album, “Dear John” (Polyvinyl). “I am lost like I was the day before,” one song admits. A devotee of elaborate pop from the Beach Boys to a-ha ….
Covering Willie Nelson is an exercise in hubris, making Phosphorescent's tribute to the Texas icon all the more substantial. Graceful, honest, and wringing every understated ounce of emotion from the tunes, Matthew Houck focuses on the country figurehead's wearier numbers, the Sunday morning after Saturday night's whiskey river. Houck's hiccuped and cracked delivery on opener "Reasons to Quit" and "Heartaches of a Fool" is wracked with regret well beyond his years, taking cues from the original's behind-the-beat phrasing, while "Pick Up the Tempo" and "I Gotta Get Drunk" lazily infuse some energy.
Matthew Houck, a musician originally from Georgia and now based in Brooklyn, has released three previous albums as Phosphorescent, a band of which he is the sole constant member. His first two albums were generally well-received, country and folk-influenced affairs. He earned the best reviews of his career for his third album, 2007’s Pride. For that album, Houck left behind the epic arrangements he used on his first few releases and instead wrote an album full of austere songs using a few instruments, all anchored by his voice.