The Band had a unique way of blending disparate forms of American music, including horn arrangements that distilled equal parts orchestral and New Orleans marching band (largely due to instrumentalist Garth Hudson's contributions). Later, Kurt Wagner's Lambchop, Neutral Milk Hotel and Vic Chesnutt skewed musical categories even further with their own eccentric presentations of Americana. After an understated and excellent 2009 tribute to Willie Nelson, To Willie, singer/songwriter Matthew Houck, who records under the nom de guerre Phosphorescent, has taken this lineage in yet another new direction with his surprising release Here's To Taking It Easy.
Since the emergence of Phosphorescent in 2003, Houck has left a visible trail of musical crumbs. While holing up in Athens, Ga., his early releases reflected a rougher, more cathartic approach with influences from Chesnutt and Neutral Milk Hotel clearly felt in the music's execution and sound. The horn arrangements that adorn 2007's Aw Come Aw Wry are tailored around the anguished emotion in the songs. However, in the new record's opening cut, "It's Hard to Be Humble (When You're From Alabama)," the horns are bright, as if a funeral march has broken into a celebration. Houck's worn delivery personifies the on-the-road narrator waxing sentimental for a sense of "home." Houck's narrators are often failed lovers -- from the barfly in the alt country/folk-inflected "Tell Me Baby (Have You Had Enough)" to the weary musician in the rolling Willie Nelson-like "Heaven, Sittin' Down" to the terrifyingly abusive partner in "Nothing Was Stolen (Love Me Foolishly)".
"Well apart from all the things I touched, nothing got broke all that much," sings Houck in "Nothing Was Stolen." But Houck subtly undermines the narrator in the Fleet Foxes-like harmonic chorus, "You can love me foolishly, love me, foolish lie."
It would be simple to compare Houck's vocals to contemporary Americana eccentrics, such as Will Oldham; however, they're also informed by the influences of The Byrds' Roger McGuinn, namely the often overlooked 1968 alt-country primer, Sweetheart of the Rodeo. Houck's delivery is reminiscent of McGuinn's melodically nasal vocals.
Using his current touring band, Houck makes his fifth full-length release a band effort, with each musician contributing key backing vocals, as well as adept instrumentation that serve the songs. Musically, the band's versatile execution accompanies Houck's various styles or moods, from Neil Young's countrified rock a la Crazy Horse to the raw sophistication of The Band.
Houck is a musical drifter, who has carried his musical baggage -- from Athens, Ga., to La., to Austin and finally to Brooklyn (where he now resides) -- with pride. The progression of his talent is evident in the Phosphorescent catalogue. Here's To Taking It Easy serves as a marker of the impressive growth of a songwriter, while offering one of the most satisfying releases of the year.