Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Album Review: Phosphorescent - "Muchacho"

It's kind of crazy to think that Matthew Houck has been releasing music under the moniker Phosphorescent since 2003. With five albums under his belt, Houck admits that he wishes he had even more albums to show for a decade's worth of work, but with three years since Phosphorescent's last release (the well-received, but sparsely re-visited Here's To Taking It Easy) it was due time for Houck to take another crack at an album, and thus he releases Muchacho, an album that makes it difficult to deny 2013 will be Phosphorescent's year to shine.

The Alabama native, now residing in Brooklyn, takes a large cue from many artists of the 60's and 70's when it comes to his role in making the music for Phosphorescent. Not only does Matthew write and sing, he also plays multiple instruments and produces a large portion of the music for Phosphorescent: an homage to the great folk artists from the days of yore (he even titled Phospho's 2007 album To Willie - a tribute to Willie Nelson).

It'd be a stretch to say Matthew Houck is the next Bob Dylan or Waylon Jennings, but you have to hand it to the guy for taking such a personal role in Phosphorescent's sound; giving the impression that he truly believes in what he's producing, making sure every piece of the puzzle is in its correct position and is cut just right.

To Willie and Here's to Taking It Easy were appreciation pieces for classic Americana rock music, driving forward with heavy country influences; Phosphorescent's latest album Muchacho (via Dead Oceans), has Houck taking more chances.

"I've always been happy with the records I've made," he says, "but sonically I think there's been something lacking. This time, I was getting really excited with the experimental noises I was making." Houck was even working on creating an ambient album with no lyrics at all, and considered releasing it under a different name (or even his own).

It's a good thing he didn't, because had he released an album without lyrics, 2013 would have been robbed of one of its most thoroughly beautiful albums.

The story behind Muchacho's creation may be cliche; Houck even admits this to be somewhat true... but that doesn't make it any less inspiring.

As 2012 came, Houck's personal life began to unravel. A domestic struggle found the songwriter suddenly needing to find a new apartment and studio in Brooklyn, a city which basically has a "Vacancy Limited" sign illuminated as you enter the borough. Houck says that 5 or 6 songs came from the "bit of a freak out" he was dealing with, and suddenly, on a random Sunday, he booked a flight to Mexico that was leaving just three hours later.

Matthew Houck of Phosphorescent
Taking his guitar with him, Houck's journey found him spending a week on the Yucatan Peninsula in a small hut on the beach, writing the music that would become Muchacho's backbone.

When Muchacho's lead single, "Song for Zula" came out a while back, my jaw nearly hit the floor when I listened to it the first time. Soulful lyrics speak like a gospel for those who believe in love, whether it be the ups or downs that come with it - "See, honey, I saw love, you see it came to me/ it put its face up to my face so I could see/ Yeah, then I saw love disfigure me/ into something I am not recognizing" The track is a beautiful recount of the peaks and valleys of love, not only serving as a release, but as an epigram for what love "should" be.

I was initially afraid that the rest of the album would not live up to the beauty that was found in "Song for Zula" but my skepticism was quickly eradicated. Muchacho is framed wonderfully by two songs, serving as bookends for the emotion held within; titled, "Sun, Arise! (An Invocation, An Introduction)" and "Sun, Arise! (A Koan, An Exit)" the tracks are simple enough to suggest a soothing metaphor that despite darkness, light will eventually return.

The glory of Muchacho is that Houck doesn't pigeon-hole himself into creating music that is over-dramatic or emotionally exhausting. If the album was chalk full of 10 different "Song[s] for Zula" the album would be easily dismissed. But Muchacho does just the opposite, providing songs that feature uplifting horn sections, and upbeat melodies in which the sudden "Woo!" from Houck can induce a reason for hope as well as a simultaneous outburst of the same nature.

Phosphorescent at this year's SXSW
The third track, "Ride On/Right On" is a song focused on highlighting the abstract guitar sounds Houck would find himself experimenting with, looping behind his vulnerable and shaky voice and a great 808 drum beat. "Muchacho's Tune" along with "A New Anhedonia" and "The Quotidian Beasts" are Muchacho's fullest sounding songs, as Houck would call upon 20 different musicians at different times to help deliver the songs' resonances. This sound is delivered exceptionally well through Phosphorescent's live set, with Houck leading a 5-piece band behind him.

But it's "Muchacho's Tune" that serves as the pivot-point of the album, and was the first song that Houck would find in its full form: armed with mariachi brass, a great twanging guitar section, an echoing bass, and lyrics that really help the album find its character. "I found some fortune, found some fame/ finally cauterized my veins/ Yeah, I've been fucked up, I've been a fool," Houck revels, then sings in the chorus, "I fix myself up, to come and be with you.."

It's this self-realization that gives Muchacho a full-fledged personality. Muchacho appears vulnerable and weak, yet entirely self-aware of its own weaknesses, which gives it an astounding sense of strength. Houck's vocals are wavering, but only in the best way, as his vocals deliver a calm comfort that helps his listeners empathize with his messages.

Muchacho, as an album, is one of the most refreshing pieces of music in recent memory. The songs held within function well on their own and combine to create an album that drives home a ray of hope, as fleeting as it can be at times. The album demonstrates that music can have a power within itself, whether listening to it or creating it; music can be therapeutic... life-changing, even. Muchacho is one of those albums that comes across ever so rarely, an album that finds its creator in a position so vulnerable that its impossible to not relate and recount.

My Rating: 4.8/5

Purchase Muchacho (Available 3/19): iTunes | Dead Oceans

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