Phosphorescent, Here’s To Taking It Easy
Morphing into a country-rock force to be reckoned with
Phosphorescent used to live in the wilderness. Their starlit 2007 record Pride was a raw, pre-verbal cry up at an open sky: a bunch of real-deal hippies, the kind who haven't seen running water in five years, crooning songs of obscure devotion around a campfire. The songs were often nothing but mantras, sung in velvety four-part harmony and lit by whoops and ululations. "Be Dark Night" consists of just those three words, sung slowly and softly, over and over, with no instruments; on "Wolves," the menacing imagery — "Mama there's wolves outside" — is warmed by a single glowing ember of keyboard and two strings of a mandolin. Never mind they were just a bunch of dudes from Athens and Brooklyn: Phosphorescent tapped into something primal.
From the raucous first notes of "It's Hard to Be Humble (When You're From Alabama)," Phosphorescent make it crystal clear that they've left the hippie commune far behind. On Here's To Taking It Easy, the group is headed for the big city, and "It's Hard to Be Humble" is a windows-down, Gram Parsons-style warm breeze, a soused, rollicking tumble of saloon piano, electric slide and blaring horn charts. Matthew Houck's peculiar backwoods hiccup doesn't quite sound accustomed to these carefree road tales — he comes off a bit like a record with a persistent skip. But the quirk is almost reassuring, a grounding reminder of the group's essential weirdness, which remains intact even as they leave the cabin behind for good.
Much of Here's To Taking It Easy is given over to these country-rock ramblers, and they can be disorienting, like being blasted with floodlights after a week with no electricity. It might be too much for some longtime fans. But don't be fooled: Phosphorescent haven't gone happy. There's a wistful note in that album title. City life brings modern, insoluble problems, the kind detailed in the heartrending, masterful divorce tale "The Mermaid Parade." The song shows that Houck has soaked up the lessons he learned from To Willie, last year's album of Willie Nelson covers, all the way into his bones. For that record, Houck selected only the most quivering, abject moments of heartsickness in Nelson's catalogue: "The Last Thing I Needed (First Thing This Morning)"; "It's Not Supposed To Be That Way"; "Can I Sleep In Your Arms." His bird's-egg fragile tenor gave these songs near-knee-buckling power, and here, he pens his own worthy addition to the canon of country songs designed to reduce you to emotional rubble.
The song begins with a missed phone call, from New York to L.A., and ends with this plainspoken stunner of a second verse: "Now our hearts were on fire/ only two weeks ago/ and our bodies were like live wires down on the beach in New Mexico/ Then I came back to the city, and you stayed home in L.A./ then our two years of marriage in two weeks somehow just slipped away." The graceful mirror-ball waltz pirouetting behind Houck shows he wasn't the only one closely studying those Willie records; the band has morphed into a country-rock force to be reckoned with. They haven't entirely abandoned their Iron John roots, though; "Hej, I'm Light" is a bad peyote trip of a song, a tribal yawp that spirals up out of the teeming city back up to the stars, from whence they came.