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Phosphorescent - To Willie

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Artist: Phosphorescent

Album: To Willie

Label: Dead Oceans

Review date: Feb. 3, 2009

Matthew Houck, a musician originally from Georgia and now based in Brooklyn, has released three previous albums as Phosphorescent, a band of which he is the sole constant member. His first two albums were generally well-received, country and folk-influenced affairs. He earned the best reviews of his career for his third album, 2007’s Pride. For that album, Houck left behind the epic arrangements he used on his first few releases and instead wrote an album full of austere songs using a few instruments, all anchored by his voice. His voice is, indeed, probably the band’s best asset – a bone-dry tenor that cracks when Houck reaches for higher registers. Perhaps it’s not a classically great voice, but it has character. And as a lot of people have pointed out, Houck sounds a lot like Willie Nelson; he even has his habit of singing a little behind the beat.

So it’s fitting, I suppose, that Houck would release an album full of Willie Nelson covers. Fortunately, though, To Willie is not just an album full of sound-alike songs. Houck has many of the same vocal mannerisms as the album’s eponymous subject, but he is really paying tribute to Nelson’s gift as a songwriter. It’s ironic that he does not cover anything from To Lefty From Willie, the album that inspired To Willie’s name and cover art, but Houck’s selections cover the bases of what is actually a very complicated public persona. There’s the purveyor of classic concept albums like Red Headed Stranger, the legendary fan of weed and women, and the mainstay of adult contemporary radio.

It’s hard to find truly undiscovered gems in the back catalog of somebody like Willie Nelson, both because critics have praised him throughout his career and because major labels released most of his records. Houck doesn’t find anything unknown, but he wisely stayed away from most of the mainstream country hits we’re all familiar with (after all, the last thing the world needed was another cover of “Crazy” or “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys”). Instead, he draws mainly from Nelson’s catalog in the late ’60s and early ’70s.

The album best represented is Phases and Stages, Nelson’s album chronicling an unraveling marriage, which has three selections: “Walkin’,” “It’s Not Supposed to Be That Way,” and “Pick Up the Tempo.” There are a few songs from the greatest hits mold. “Heartaches of a Fool,” a torch song with pedal steel accompaniment; a rollicking version of “I Gotta Get Drunk,” playing up the line about old drunks versus old doctors; and the natural closing song, “The Party’s Over.”

Like Pride, the best songs on To Willie are the ones where the artifice is stripped away. “Permanent Lonely” has little more than Houck’s voice and a synthesizer, and he brings out a hidden theme of the song, which is written as a taunt to an ex-girlfriend but now suggests something a little more desperate and sad. “Reasons to Quit,” taken from an album Nelson recorded with Merle Haggard, has a quiet band accompaniment that gives it a meditative effect, underlying the irresolute lyrics. The real standout is Houck’s version of “The Last Thing I Needed (First Thing This Morning).” It’s a standard country break-up song, recounting the cavalcade of misfortunes befalling the narrator in addition to breaking up with his wife; here, Houck underplays the jokes in the lyrics, and the song instead becomes a sweet recounting of faults ignored for the sake of staying together. To Willie seems more like a personal effort than a proper follow-up to Pride, and it’s not as inventive as that album. It works well as a covers collection, though, and if it inspires anyone to pick up a copy of Phases and Stages, I suspect its creator will consider it a success.

By Tom Zimpleman

Other Reviews of Phosphorescent

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Here’s To Taking It Easy

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