Phosphorescent, Here’s to Taking It Easy

Phosphorescent, Here's to Taking It Easy

I know I really should be fairly used to it by now, but for some reason, it still makes me scratch my head a little to hear sounds like this coming out of ultra-urban Brooklyn — sounds that are warm and rootsy and homespun, the kind that’d sound more at home heard through the swinging door of some rural honky-tonky outside of Huntsville than coming out of a dimly-lit NYC artspace-slash-venue.

I mean, sure, nearly every big city in America probably has at least a handful of country-folk bands toiling away amidst the skyscrapers, but some of those actually make sense; I get why/how that kind of music gets made in, say, Omaha, New Orleans, or Houston. It just seems a little incongruous to hear it emanating from a place so resolutely un-rural as the Big Apple.

On the other hand, it’s an age-old tale: you go where you have to go to be able to make music, and in the case of Phosphorescent’s Matthew Houck, he headed northeast-ward to NYC from his native Alabama, a country boy looking to make it big under the bright lights of the big city. And in a musical way, at least, he’s taken the backroads, beer-joints, and summer nights of his hometown along with him, like a turtle traveling within its shell, and has managed to transplant beautifully that laid-back Southern vibe in the process.

Give the guy credit for making no bones about it, either — Here’s to Taking It Easy kicks in with the Skynyrd-gone-Nawlins bump of “It’s Hard to Be Humble (When You’re From Alabama),” which sees Houck proudly proclaiming, “I was never meant to carry no shame,” and from the unapologetically upbeat track, it’s plain he means it. On that track, Phosphorescent meld the back-and-forth boogie riff from Skynyrd’s own “What’s Your Name” to tinkling keys, bayou horns, cracked-yet-boyish vocals that make me think of Buxton’s Sergio Trevino, and an almost “Stuck in the Middle with You”-like shuffle, and they come up with a tune that’s both fun and road-worn.

Houck and company tend a little more to the melancholy side of things for most of the rest of Taking It Easy, starting with the gentle, airy “Nothing Was Stolen (Love Me Foolishly),” which reminds me of The Moondoggies if they didn’t always sound so sleepy and beaten-down, or Fleet Foxes without a hint of Brit-folk creeping in. The song ambles in sheepishly and sits itself down before pleading for a chance at love, and the warm sweetness and great group vocals just sweep you along with the band.

A little further on, “The Mermaid Parade” is a beautifully poignant little bluesy story-song about a couple whose relationship just crumbles and falls to pieces; it slow-dances around the room with Houck sounding resigned ’til almost the last minute, when he finally cracks and interrupts himself as he’s talking about his new girl, angrily swearing, “Goddammit, Amanda / Goddammit, all.” It’s a nicely human moment, one that takes a decent song and throws it several steps beyond that.

The cleverly ambiguous “I Don’t Care If There’s Cursing” returns somewhat to the bounce of the first track, rambling into the room with a big, sneaky grin on its face and then running through a long list of all the stuff Houck doesn’t care about. It’s an intriguing lyrical conceit, and one he pulls off nicely; throughout Taking It Easy, in fact, Houck proves himself to be a hell of a songwriter in general, taking what could easily be more mundane indie-folk and forcing you to listen closely so you can catch all the subtleties.

“Hej, Me I’m Light” is the album’s odd-man-out, to be sure — it’s trippier and far more psychedelic, a mesmerizing repeated chant of the same repeated lyric over and over again (three guesses what it is) layered on top of handclaps, a murky beat, and backwoods gospel choir vocals. It’s Houck’s vocals that make it work, here; he comes off weirdly like Jeff Mangum circa In the Aeroplane over the Sea, with that cracked voice spiraling and soaring like he’s about to start singing about two-headed children or something. It doesn’t really go anywhere, but I’m okay with that; it’s a little bit of a stab backwards to the more psych-folk stylings of 2007’s Pride, and it serves as a cool little late-intermission track amid the more rootsy stuff.

After that, it’s back to the more countrified Phosphorescent, with the honky-tonk-ish “Heaven, Sittin Down,” where Houck resembles Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst more than anything else, albeit with less pretense and more steel guitar. Then there’s album closer “Los Angeles,” which is nearly nine minutes of gloomy, despairing-yet-resolute blues that meanders on down a darkened, worn-down road with no end in sight. Sure enough, though, it seems clear that Houck and his band will hang in there and eventually catch sight of the sun again.

(Feature photo by Sebastian Mynarski.)

[Phosphorescent is playing 5/6/11 at Warehouse Live, along with Robert Ellis.]
(Dead Oceans -- 1499 W. Second St., Bloomington, IN. 47403;; Phosphorescent --
BUY ME: Amazon

Review by . Review posted Friday, May 6th, 2011. Filed under Features, Reviews.

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One Response to “Phosphorescent, Here’s to Taking It Easy

  1. SPACE CITY ROCK » Yr. Weekend, Pt. 1: Farewell to KTRU + Phosphorescent (Revd!) + Yppah + Venomous Maximus (Revd!) + Wilco + More on January 20th, 2012 at 8:56 am

    […] latest album, Here’s to Taking It Easy, and it’s pretty great; see the full review over here. Plus, amazing local boy Robert Ellis may or may not be opening for ‘em; you’ll have to […]

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