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There was a time when the only occasion you would see a human wearing a checked country shirt in the flesh was when Green on Red crossed the pond (which they never did) or at UK line-dancing contests. Now they are ubiquitous, from George at Asda to ATP (especially for those who manage to find themselves straddling both illustrious categories). These days, the selection of alt.country is as diverse as said shirts, in that they have both entered post-hip territories.
For shame? In the case of Phosphorescent, yes and no. Were Phosphorescent’s Matthew Houck from these shores you’d expect him to take the George at Asda problem and repackage it as if it were from an alternate, more surreal universe. Here's to Taking it Easy track ‘The Mermaid Parade’ is a key example, whereby Coney Island’s annual fête is the setting for a dreamy stroll overwritten by the sense of missed opportunity: “I wound-up walking by the ocean today, there were naked women dancing in the Mermaid Parade.” Despite the vivid description of a very real scenario, it’s presented as pure fantasy.
Opening track ‘It’s Hard To Be Humble (When You’re From Alabama)’ shows a selection of slight comic turns and appropriately includes a nod to Brecht. It’s an up-tempo trumpets blazing barnstormer - if the generic ‘country shirt’ wearing, barn frequenting regulars are savvy enough to get the references. This new found brightness to what was already an aesthetically rich mix makes for wholesome listening especially when light-hearted wordplay and bittersweet humour are rife.
With this partisan reduction in mind, a potential problem on Here’s to Taking it Easy is that – for the most part - it sounds like undiluted country music. That the distinguishing features of Phosphorescent, the extended tracks, the blurry focus, the coarse vocals are all gone. As a replacement, slick orchestrations reduced to packageable pop ditties and garnished with country cliché, slide guitars and touring revue orchestrations.
This step towards populist convention is rarely to the benefit of the record. Track ‘Heaven, Sittin’ Down’ indicates a much where Houck looks beyond his mortal coil towards more blessed pleasures. In this case the hoe-down tempo and jolly lyrical melody do little to salvage proceedings. ‘Los Angeles’ exploits a Crazy Horse-esque lead guitar; MV&EE producing enough Shakey pleasures already, there’s little pleasure to take from this track other than the choral interjections. It's a maze of potential plagiarisms and disciplinary dirge.
The sole nugget of pure experimentation and ‘substance in the style’ verse is ‘Hej, I’m Light’. Layered vocals ascend creating warm textures, under which percussion rattles culminating with one of the weirdest guitar solos imaginable. Part subversive, part inspired, this awkward riffing is memorable for all the right reasons. The track also marks a departure from the Phosphorescent’s earlier lyric heavy outings. There’s a notable focus on instrumentation and a collected sound rather than the (albeit beautiful) self-isolating musings on earlier recordings.
There’s just so many country records being made, each a replica of another, that in moving away from Phosphorescent’s original sound, much of Here’s To Taking It Easy has found itself dangerously subscribing to banal convention. If Houck’s music is in transition, this record doesn’t scream 'I’ve found myself'.
- In Photos: End Of The Road Festival 2011 @ Larmer Tree Gardens, Dorset
- The National, Phosphorescent at Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry, Thu 25 Nov
- In Photos: Phosphorescent @ The Scala, London
- In Photos: Phosphorescent @ ICA, London
- Phosphorescent - Here's to Taking it Easy
- Listen: Download Phosphorescent - 'Mermaid Parade'
- Phosphorescent announces new album
- Phosphorescent - To Willie