Album: Phosphorescent, Here's To Taking It Easy (Dead Oceans)

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Matthew Houck, the founder and creative mainspring of country-rockers Phosphorescent, doubtless ticked off a couple of prominent entries on his fantasy wish-list when he played with Willie Nelson and Neil Young at last year's Farm Aid concert.

Like every singer ploughing the Americana field, Houck's fragile vocal style owes an immense debt to Young, while his affection for Nelson was confirmed with To Willie, Phosphorescent's 2009 album of covers drawn from the country outlaw legend's vast repertoire.

Here's To Taking It Easy suggests Houck has skillfully assimilated the lessons learned while researching that tribute album – particularly in the case of "Heaven, Sittin' Down", a road-weary anthem whose rolling country gait and saddlesore perspective would fit seamlessly into Willie's set.

"I wish these nights of pleasure and these days of pain weren't so tightly bound", sings Houck, gently alighting on that balance of sin and salvation that has driven poets from Donne to Dylan, and which courses through all forms of American roots music from country to soul. Likewise, the album closer "Los Angeles" has the dried-out, husky manner of one of Young's apocalyptic ballads, Houck's conversation-stopping opening line "I came to Los Angeles just to die" as stark and confrontational as anything on Young's Tonight's The Night.

While previous Phosphorescent albums have effectively been solo efforts, there's more of a band feel to Here's To Taking It Easy, which makes for a pleasing tension between Houck's vulnerable vocal and the rumbustious backing on opener "It's Hard To Be Humble (When You're From Alabama)", a slice of country honk with pedal steel guitar and horns. But it's still essentially just a vehicle for Houck's muse, something nowhere more apparent than in his own harmonies on "Nothing Was Stolen", which have the high, lonesome tone of one steeped in mountain music. Like the rest of these songs, it's an (almost) apologetic mea culpa, Houck's droll observation "Well, apart from the things I touched, nothing got broke all that much" borne along on the gentlest of pulses and a wistful breeze of pedal steel.

Elsewhere, the limping waltz "We'll Be Here Soon" is simultaneously a lament for the absent and an anticipation of their return, while both "Tell Me Baby" and "The Mermaid Parade" have the morning-after tone of someone raking over the embers of a relationship they know was foolishly razed the night before.

The latter, a plaintive country-rock waltz in the style of Wilco or The Jayhawks, reflects upon how swiftly separation stalls romance, with the protagonist wondering how "our two years of marriage in two short weeks somehow slipped away". A necessary touch of succour is provided by "Hej, Me I'm Light", in which the title becomes a mantra, gradually fattened by harmonies and counterpoints with each couple of repetitions, the overtones and harmonies building an edifice which, as it claims, is lighter than air.

Download this: It's Hard To Be Humble (When You're From Alabama); Nothing Was Stolen; Heaven, Sittin' Down; The Mermaid Parade