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Phosphorescent Makes Music That's Both Grandiose and Stark

Phosphorescent

April 19, The Edmond Town Hall, Newtown, edmondtownhall.org

 

Matthew Houck isn't afraid of bold candor. Houck, who writes, records and performs under the name Phosphorescent, sings lines like "I've been fucked up, and I've been a fool," on "Muchacho's Tune," off the new Phosphorescent record, Muchacho. He's also not afraid of making a few listeners run to the dictionary. He's got songs with titles like "A New Anhedonia" and "The Quotidian Beasts" on the record. And he doesn't shy away from the simple appeal of lyrics build on piled-up list-like structures, like "I could be the tiger, I could be the snake/ I could be the fire, I could be the lake/I could be the sky-bird waiting on the wind/ I could be the devil waiting to begin," from "Terror in the Canyons," also off the new record. Phosphorescent swerves from simple to dense, ragged to precise, down-and-out to transcendent.

Phosphorescent plays Connecticut on April 19, with a show at Newtown's Edmond Town Hall, a venue build in the 1920s, which has been getting restored steadily over the last several years. This show will be the first to showcase the Edmond's new state-of-the-art sound system and its overhauled electrical system, says William Bates, who's booked a series of "Live at the Edmond Town Hall" shows (of which this is a part) to help fund and spotlight the renovations.

A state-of-the-art sound system will suit Phosphorescent well, especially for showcasing the material from the new record, which Houck produced and recorded himself at his Brooklyn studio, as he has all of his most recent recordings. But Muchacho finds Houck stretching out into new places, with tracks that sound both stark and grandiose.

Houck's music has long straddled an unusual combination of musical connections, with layered choral pieces (made with Houck's own multi-tracked voice, stacked on itself) that evoke the Beach Boys on a vision quest, with beautiful, spooky harmonies, wolf-like yips and howls and a kind of sun-baked desert bleakness. On the new one, there's a hint of epic rock monumentalism — flickers of golden-age Bruce Springsteen and U2, particularly in the tracks with feathered-in synth and drum programming. Houck, who spoke to the Advocate by phone from the road recently, says he's steadily improved his mode of working in the studio.

"I just think I've gotten a lot better at doing it," he says.

In many ways Phosphorescent would seem like one of those bands that is in love with and indebted to the retro warmth of analog studio equipment. (And Houck is an admitted fan.) But it's also true that in some ways the work that Phosphorescent produces in the studio wouldn't really be possible without the freedoms afforded Houck by digital technology. Freedom to stretch out, to tinker, to record whenever the mood strikes. Those layered vocal choral pieces, for instance -- they require a kind of solitude and improvisation that simply wouldn't be practical (or affordable) in a traditional studio setting, with expensive tape rolling, and engineers hanging out awaiting the best take.

"There's definitely the issue of time and being ready to go when the clock says go, as opposed to being ready to go when you get your chi or your vibe on," says Houck. "The other thing is definitely the sense of being able to be alone and sort of work out these ideas. They require some alone time."

Elsewhere, when not exploring the solitary, brooding side of things, Phosphorescent is a 21st century outlaw country outfit, with tunes about drugging, boozing, blowing town, burning bridges and mangling romantic relationships. (Phosphorescent's 2009 tribute to Willie Nelson was a masterpiece of comedowns, hangovers and regret.) On "Song For Zula," off Muchacho, Houck tips the hat to the Man in Black, lifting a line or two from "Ring of Fire." He's an advanced student of the sad-sack waltz. And when his bad habits make wreckage, he manages to turn it into tuneful poetry and, somehow, goodtime music.

Many of the tunes on Muchacho were written during a period that Houck spent down in Tulum, Mexico. He was, he says, tired of traveling and playing, and "disillusioned with the whole thing."

"I just kind of needed to get out of my own life for a little bit," says Houck. "I was by myself."

If you sift through Houck's lyrics, you'll find a whole bestiary of animal references — predators, prey, wild creatures, domesticated herds, newborn pups, slithering things, fangs and more. Houck says he does so because it works well in poetry and in song. And the implied barking, growling, howling and baying sort of fits in with the musical vibe.

"As a writer I do turn to animal imagery a lot because it really makes the most sense to me," he says. "In the end we're all just animals."

 

jadamian@hartfordadvocate.com

Follow @adamianjohn on Twitter

 

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