It’s doubtful there’s ever been a collection of jacket art which better encapsulates an artist than that of Phosphorescent’s 2013 Muchacho LP. In it, Matthew Houck — who, along with whatever players he surrounds himself with, comprises Phosphorescent — is fuzzily pictured drinking, singing and cavorting with at least two women. Houck, a native Alabaman who recently moved from Brooklyn to Nashville (at least temporarily), sports curly, shaggy hair; a scruffy beard; a cowboy hat; and a white, embroidered western blazer. He’s either laughing uproariously or wearily, and there’s definitely cocaine in the bathroom, even if it remains unseen. The quarters he’s shown in aren’t the trappings of a rock star, but those of a talented, roguish troubadour who always gets the girl (or girls) before sticking them with the tab and high-tailing it to the next gig. The scene is like a lowbrow version of Jackson Browne’s “Running on Empty,” projected 35 years into the future.
“Tight” will never be an adjective used to describe Phosphorescent’s music. Houck’s signature vocal characteristic is creakiness. Yet, as with Jerry Garcia, there’s boundless charm in this imperfection. In terms of his kitchen-sink arrangements, Houck goes for it, and his lyrics are poetic, cryptic and often deeply personal. All told, Phosphorescent is loose, fun, decadent, dark, and capable of eliciting tears of both joy and sorrow. It’s all there in Muchacho’s jacket art.
Phosphorescent’s first two albums, Aw Come Aw Wry and Pride, were self-indulgent to the point of inaccessibility. Then came 2010’s Here’s to Taking It Easy, an emotional masterpiece which established Houck as Will Oldham’s trippier, cuter cousin. The best track off that album, “Los Angeles,” is featured on Phosphorescent’s new concert release (out February 17 on Dead Oceans), Live at the Music Hall. Ten minutes in length and built around the climactic lyric, “I ain’t come to Los Angeles just to die,” it builds slowly to a stunning crescendo which features wailing harmonies and multi-instrumental riffs firing in all directions. Live, it has the effect of reducing a listener to his knees, eyes closed, arms outstretched, palms up, exhausted but grinning in the pouring rain.
Recorded over the course of four 2013 shows at the Music Hall of Williamsburg, Live at the Music Hall is a three-album set featuring 19 tracks. It draws most heavily off Muchacho and begins as that album does, with the eccentric, ambient hymn “Sun, Arise! (An Invocation, An Introcution).” (Houck’s titles can be really pretentious.) Backed by an energetic, experimental (to play with Houck, you have to be both) six-piece band, Phosophorescent comes off peppier live than they do in the studio, especially on “Nothing Was Stolen (Love Me Foolishly)” and “Ride On/Right ON.” But Phosphorescent is most alluring on the hypnotic “Song for Zula,” a lush blend of synthesizers, pedal steel, and pulsating percussion that’s enhanced on the live record by a string trio. It’s Roxy Music lust meets Live Rust; nobody but Houck is capable of fusing such poles into something so uniquely beautiful.