Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Flash Review: Phosphorescent, "Muchacho"

Adapted from my erstwhile Acousticx blog.

I haven't made any music posts in a while. My kid got sick, then I did, and then life just got in the way. You know how it is. But my wife gave me a nudge to share my thoughts on an album she was listening to on the way to and from the dentist this morning. She's a novelist waiting (and waiting, and waiting) for her big break, and she says she'd used one of the songs in reference to one of her fictional characters.

So today we have Alabama native Matthew Houck, who, like Five for Fighting and Passenger, are simultaneously singular artists and entire bands. Houck's band-slash-alter ego is called Phosphorescent, and before this morning I'd never heard of him. The album in question is 2013's Muchacho, which, a quick Wikipedia reading tells me, came out of a period in Houck's life when he got off tour and had to disassemble his recording space because of New York zoning laws. He lost his girlfriend along the way, too. But the upside was that he got to play around with a lot of sounds while building a home studio, and the result was this album.

Here's the first tune. Click over to YouTube to hear the rest of the album.

My first impression was that Houck's voice sounds similar to that of Ben Bridwell from Band of Horses, with that same sort of world-weary, stretched-thin tenor delivery. But there's also a raw raggedness that puts me in the mind of Neil Young, in one of his acoustic moods when his voice feels like it's warbling in despair, the sound of a man who's seen too much.

The album is bookended by similar pieces. At the front, we have "Sun, Arise! (An Invocation, an Introduction)," whose sunny African-tinged percussive electronics and multilayered vocals don't give you an indication of what's coming. The ending piece, "Sun's Arising (A Koan, an Exit)," sets aside the opening piece's electronics for a loosely jangling electric guitar line behind long, swooping vocal gilssandos. The lyrics, minimal though they are, speak of embracing the light after a time of darkness, which gives the listener a sense that the feeling of resignation that characterizes a lot of the music in between was a phase in the artist's life that got better. Or at least we can assume he's looking ahead with optimism to brighter days.

I see that Houck mentions trying to capture a Brian Eno vibe on this album, and that comes through most strongly on the second track: "Song for Zula," with its airy production and bubbling bass line, wouldn't be out of place on a U2 album. Houck also gives a lyrical nod to Johnny Cash here when he sings, "Some say love is a burning thing / that it makes a fiery ring." Sure enough, the song speaks of a love gone sour, one that makes him feel that his soul has been trapped in a cage.

The next track, "Ride On/Right On," feels a little more upbeat, yet we still hear the singer hating his situation, one in which he seems to feel taken advantage of by others. Then we move into a bit of a country mood, with violin, steel guitar, and piano setting the mood for "Terror in the Canyons (The Wounded Master)," coupled by a lyrical sense that our narrator feels as if he could have been anything he wanted to be, until the bottom dropped out when the one he loved left him.

Nowhere is the Neil Young vibe stronger than on "A Charm/A Blade" and "Down to Go," the latter of which shares some melodic qualities with Young's "Beautiful Bluebird." Houck here gives an especially emotional vocal performance, his voice sounding as if it's cracking under the weight of tiredness and sadness.

The other three tunes probably caught my interest more than the rest. "Muchacho's Tune," as close as we get here to a title track, serves up a waltz-tempo twang over which Houck finally feels a glimmer of hope, determined to fix himself and return to his erstwhile lover. One can only hope, on listening to the yearning in his vocal delivery, that his optimism isn't in vain.

"A New Anhedonia" held the most rhythmic interest for me, swinging between a 9/8 and two bars of 6/8 on the verses. Lyrically, though, we return to a bleak place, as the song appears to be about a friend who's burned out after always chasing the next drug high. The Wikipedia article did mention that alcohol and drugs contributed to Houck's personal dissolution that preceded the making of this album, so perhaps this tune is just as autobiographical as the ones about lost love appear to be.

And finally, there's "The Quotidian Beasts," which I think is my favorite track upon my first run-through. It rocks harder than any other tune on the record, and the intriguing lyrics appear to have something to do with being bewitched, with references to claws and a raven's beak. Dark but compelling stuff here. The yowling wordless vocals between the verses put me in the mind of a melody I've heard somewhere else but can't quite place. If I ever figure it out, I'll come back here and comment further on it.

And there you have it. This was a fun experiment that got the creative juices going today. I'm eager to see what music the Missus cooks up for me next.

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