One of the bands that’s been slowly burning its way into my consciousness the past few years is Phosphorescent. It started with their head-turning 2009 album To Willie, which contained all Willie Nelson songs redone with a laid-back approach that both pays tribute to Nelson’s own songwriting and arrangements, but also brings the music inside the circle of 21st century indie-rock. Meaning, Phosphorescent does a fantastic job reinterpreting Nelson’s music with arrangements and voice born from the alt-country side of the tracks, and makes the classic songs like “Too Sick To Pray” and “Pick Up The Tempo” feel fresh all over again.
Listen to the lead track, “Reasons to Quit”–a Nelson song that may have not grabbed your attention before; in the hands of Matthew Houck, however (he’s the main force in Phosphorescent)–with his gently raspy voice that sounds on the verge of breakdown–it’s a clear standout, capturing a moment in time where the characters are teetering on the edge between too much and not enough.
OK, not teetering anymore, they’re slipping into darkness.
To Willie had an impact not only on music fans–who, like me, perked up and paid attention to this previously barely known band–but on Houck himself. You can hear the positive effects of that Nelson experience on Phosphorescent’s equally fantastic 2010 album, Here’s To Taking It Easy.
Houck has a voice that, like the character in “Reasons To Quit,” feels like it’s teetering on the brink of disaster, and knowing it. That’s the thing: the characters he create are fully aware of their predicaments, which only adds to the tragic nature of the material. “Tell me baby have you had enough/I know I can play too rough,” he sings on “Tell Me Baby,” against a lovely wash of electric and steel guitars.
“It’s Hard to Be Humble (When You’re from Alabama)” has to be one of the best song titles I’ve heard in years (Houck hails from Alabama but relocated to Brooklyn). It’s a joyful tumble of a song, with punchy horns and a galloping rhythm that brings together rock, country, and R&B. There’s also a cry underneath–an acknowledgement of loss, which in this case, like so much of classic country music, appears to be the singer’s home turf. We don’t know the full backstory here, but we can sense it–a person leaves home to follow their dreams, and then is immersed in a whirlwind adventure that flies by seemingly with little control, and leaves them longing for simpler times. The song isn’t exactly “humble”–it stays raucous to its end. So revisiting that title, who knows, maybe I’m reading too much into it–but again, I like it.
The song that’s sticking out most though is “Mermaid Parade,” which wears its pathos right out front like a badge of honor. OK, maybe honor isn’t the right word, but you get the idea. A song about a relationship that appears to have hit the rocks (hard), the song is written for a woman (“Amanda”) and is a reminiscence of things past, both hot and not.
“I came back to this city, and you stayed home in LA. And our two years of marriage, in two short weeks somehow just slipped away.”
It’s not the words, or even the arrangments that get me, awesome as they are; it’s the way he sings the words. You have to hear it to know what I mean. It’s casual speech turned into song, and it works–it sings. And when at the end he belts out, “godamn it Amanda, oh, god-damn it all,” that simple cry carries more weight than you can imagine.
Watch a Tiny Desk Concert with Phosphorescent.