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Nearly three years on from his breakthrough album Here’s To Taking It Easy, Phosphorescent returns to the fray with his most stunning record yet: Muchacho. During the last album’s ‘cycle’, one could almost hear jaws hitting the floor witnessing a live band of such infinite verve. Not only did the album draw high praise in the form of Mojo’s ‘Album of the Month’ (#8 End of Year), Sunday Times & The Independent ‘Albums of the Week’, hit Rough Trade’s Top 5 Best of the Year, but the band also supported The National over the course of three sold out nights at Brixton Academy, a show that The Independent gave 5/5 and called “a sublime, joyous gig”.
Matthew Houck, for he is Phosphorescent, likes to work. The Alabama native, now resident in Brooklyn has delivered five albums as Phosphorescent since his 2003 debut. Houck has a highly distinctive artistic voice, but also a refreshing, rolled-sleeves approach to his expression, and if he had his way, he’d have twice as many albums under his belt by now. The singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and producer is envious of the time when prolificacy was expected. “In the ’60s and ’70s, they were making artists crank out records every six months. With guys like Waylon Jennings, John Prine and even Dylan, I don’t think those records would have gotten made in today’s climate, because now you’re allowed – or even required – to make a grand statement. I have this ideal – and I know it’s not possible, because of the way the industry works – of making a record every year.”
Houck may not have managed that, but still has an impressive output – one born of commitment and his soul’s need to have its say. It was 2007’s Pride – a delicate and spare, haunted and haunting work of ragged country, bittersweet southern gospel and forlorn folk-ish drone – that first caused ears to swivel appreciatively in Phosphorescent’s direction. He followed it with To Willie, a tribute to country legend Willie Nelson, then 2010’s Here’s To Taking It Easy, an unapologetically enthusiastic plunge into country rock and rolling Americana. Now, his sixth album flashes yet another colour in the subtly shifting Phosphorescent spectrum.
Muchacho reprises the understated melancholia and sensuous minimalism of Pride, while kicking up a little of Here’s To Taking It Easy’s dust, but it also strikes out into more adventurous waters via rhythm and electronic textures. It took shape if not quite by accident, then partly as a result of events beyond Houck’s control. After spending the best part of 18 months touring his last record, Houck was, in his words “pretty fried.” In late 2011, he returned to the Brooklyn Navy Yard studio where he’d recorded his previous two albums, planning “on taking this whole thing down a few notches. I wanted to make music,” he explains, “but I was weary, so the spectre of putting anything out and getting back on the road was a bit of a block.” In December, he bought a load of old analogue gear and “just starting playing around with it, making these noises. They weren’t songs, they were just strange sound pieces. I’ve always had that element in my work, and one or two weird, ambient pieces seem to squeeze themselves onto every record, but suddenly I was doing a lot of those.” Houck also turned into a bit of DIY electrician, since a lot of the vintage gear needed fixing. “I ended up spending a lot of time learning about stuff like impedance matching and ohms,” he laughs. “I really got quite nerdy about how it all worked.”
Houck also got very enthusiastic about the sonics that would eventually feed into the strikingly raw, Can-like, ‘Ride On/Right On’, where his simple, whooping vocal and 808 drum beats are the focus, the production is echo-heavy and the guitar little more than abstract background choogling. “I’ve always been happy with the records I’ve made,” the singer says, “but sonically, I think there’s been something lacking. This time, I was getting really excited about the experimental sounds I was making. I was thinking I might make an ambient record that had vocals, but no lyrics. I was actually considering releasing it under another name, or even my own name.” So, a much-needed break, plus some enjoyable messing around with noise, without much thought as to how to use it. But, exactly as 2012 turned, Houck’s life began to unravel. A domestic crisis meant he had to find another apartment/studio at short notice, in the dead of winter. In accommodation-squeezed New York. His life was falling apart, but almost perversely, “songs just started happening, and there were five or six of them.” Houck admits he was “in the middle of a bit of a freak-out,” so in the small hours one Sunday, he booked a ticket to Mexico, on a plane that was leaving three hours later. “It sounds really cheesy, but I went down there with a guitar and got a little hut on the beach in Tulum, on the Yucatan Peninsula.” He spent a week there, working to finish the songs that would become Muchacho, then went back to NYC, found a new place, fitted it out with his studio and began tracking the record in May 2012.
‘Muchacho’s Tune’ – with its opening braid of twanging guitars, piano and electric keys, its warm, rich reverb and poignant mariachi brass – is the song on which the album turns. “I’ve been fucked-up and I’ve been a fool,” confesses Houck, who may or may not be the feckless man-boy of the title. This was the first song to come to him fully formed, and it establishes the album’s lyrical theme – “that the possibility of redemption through love and romance is not just hopeful, it’s also viable. It definitely exists. But what ends up happening is more redemption through some vague means that I don’t really understand.”
The album is perfectly framed by ‘Sun, Arise! (An Invocation, An Introduction)’ and ‘Sun’s Arising (A Koan, An Exit)’, the opening and closing tracks respectively. Sweet, healing and hugely potent in their hymnal simplicity, they not only recognise the diurnal rhythm that governs our existence, but also remind us that however dark things might get, the light will always reappear.
‘Muchacho’s Tune’, the somber and majestically slow ‘A New Anhedonia’ and the seductively loose ‘The Quotidian Beasts’ are the album’s fullest songs in terms of instrumentation and arrangements. Houck called on around 20 musicians at different times to add various parts, including members of the superior five-piece live band that has recently made such an eloquent and physically powerful contribution to Phosphorescent’s soulful expression. But the album’s composition and production are again all his own. “It’s really always me by myself, so much so that with Pride, no one else played anything. I have a group of really great dudes, and I’ll happily trumpet how fantastic these guys are, but a band going into the studio, as one? That never happens.”
‘A New Anhedonia’ – a gorgeous, charcoal grey song on which understated piano, soft brush work and ripples of pedal-steel guitar are matched with heavy reverb and gently sighing backing vocals – was the second song to come fully formed to Houck. And the crisis it describes was resolved by the very writing. Anhedonia is a loss of the ability to take pleasure in something the sufferer usually finds enjoyable, and Houck experienced it in those winter months following that grueling tour. It’s quite a shock to hear him murmur, “all the music is boring to me” and then describe music as “foreign”, but that’s how he felt for a short, dark while. “In addition to what was going on in my personal life, music had always been the most reliable thing for me, but I had a few really lost months of not caring about it, of not deriving any pleasure from music. I felt detached and adrift from everything. Oddly enough, I don’t think I knew the word ‘anhedonia’; it just kind of popped up right around the time of writing that song. That dread was still quite prevalent, even after the batch of songs came together.”
If losing one’s way results in something as lustrous as the first album taster ‘Song for Zula’, more artists should find life’s maze and walk around for an indefinite period. It is such a glorious gem that unfolds with Houck’s cracked vocal stalking the perimeters unabashed. And this amidst an album positively riddled with highlights like ‘Terror in the Canyons’ and superlative ‘A Charm/A Blade’; all barreling piano and stabby horns galore.
It’s indicative of Houck’s distinctive talent, dedication to his work and trust in his muse, then, that a temporary hurdle didn’t become a serious block. “I got clear of it by just getting to work on the recording,” he says, simply. Sleeves rolled. Resolve fixed. Muchacho delivered.
Caveman-a five-man vibe collective from NYC-released their first album in 2011. As first albums go, CoCo Beware was something akin to a moody statement of intent, a blueprint for a band quickly learning how to create horizon-wide rock songs that were equal parts intimate and expansive. Initially self-released and later snatched up by Fat Possum for re-release in early 2012, the record brims over with four-part harmonies, crystalline guitar lines, and tracks that see-sawed between echoey lullaby (“A Country’s King of Dreams”) to shoegaze-by-way-of classic-FM-radio sprawl (“Old Friend”). The album quickly elevated Caveman from local band to watch to a sizable touring draw and formidable live act, as evidenced by stints on the road with the likes of The War on Drugs and Built to Spill. Despite being the work of a brand new band, CoCo Beware displayed a kind of Zen-like ease. It was the sound a five friends settling into a nice groove; the music that happens when, for whatever reason, a lot of seemingly disparate elements finally fall into place.
On their self-titled sophomore album Caveman stretch their legs in a number of different, albeit cohesive, directions. While the dreaded second album experience tends to be fraught for many bands, in the case of Caveman it proved to be the opposite. Having ridden a fast-growing wave of support for CoCo Beware-which, after two years of touring, ultimately culminated in a series of big hometown NYC shows-recording a follow up proved to be a genuine good time for the band.
“We all went up to Jimmy’s grandmother’s place in New Hampshire,” says singer Matthew Iwanusa. “That’s where the new record kind of started. It was literally the attic of her barn, lit up by Christmas lights. We’d all sit in this one room together and one by one we’d all go into the bathroom and record ourselves making the most psycho noises possible. It actually felt kind of like a weird breakthrough. We were all confident and comfortable enough with each other to try out these experiments, which extended itself into the making of the new record…which is really just an evolution of this vibe that we’d been cultivating for long time.”
With that, the guys holed up in Brooklyn’s Rumpus Room to start recording in earnest with Nick Stumpf (who produced the band’s debut album) and Albert Di Fiore behind the controls. They routinely turned out all the lights in the studio and “vibed out the space” while recording, which makes sense given the warm, big room feeling that saturates the record. The album is a kind of sonic microcosm-a series of emotional yet tough mini-narratives operating within the same quixotic musical universe.
It’s fair to say that the songs on Caveman benefited from a solid year of touring on the band’s part. “We really learned how to play together,” says keyboardist Sam Hopkins, “the shorter songs from the first record got longer and longer when we played them live. We learned how to stretch ourselves in different ways.” As a result, the guitars on Caveman are bigger and more expansive, the rhythm section is tighter and more adventurous, the keyboards more opaque and pronounced. Like a marriage between Tangerine Dream, late period Slowdive, and Lindsey Buckingham, tracks like their new single “In the City” and “Ankles” boast synth lines that sound simultaneously retro and futuristic, while “Pricey” and “Never Want to Know” overflow with guitar sounds that could have miraculously floated off an old Cure album. (It should be noted that James Carbonetti, the band’s primary guitar player, also happens to be one of the most highly regarded guitar makers in New York City.) And while Caveman’s music could certainly operate on the level of dreamy soundscape and still be excellent, the depth of feeling in front man Matthew Iwanusa’s lyrics helps weave the songs deeply into your memory. As is the case with many a band on the rise, the price of popularity often comes at the surprise expense of everyone’s own personal life; a topic that fuels many of the record’s best tracks. When Iwanusa sings Where’s the time to waste on someone else’s life? on “Where’s the Time” it’s hard not to read between the lines. Wonder and regret seem to fuel the record in almost equal measure.
“We all got so close since the making of the last record,” explains Carbonetti, “Eventually it was like all of our lives were kind of blending together and several of us found ourselves going through the same kinds of struggles in our personal lives. We also realized that we all kind of loved each other-that we’d passed the friend test-and that we all just wanted to hang out together all the time, basically. All of those feelings eventually bled into the record we ended up making.”
The words “dreamy” and “cinematic” and “vibe” might be some of the most lazily overused descriptors in the music-writers lexicon, but it’s hard to think of another contemporary band that so completely embraces those terms as both an adjective for what they do and as a goal for the art they are trying to make. “A lot people don’t relate to the idea of cinematic music-something that sounds like a film soundtrack-but I love that notion,” says Iwanusa. “I love music that conjures a mood, sets a tone, and inspires a certain kind of visual. I hope people can get that from this record: a sound that accompanies this big ship flying through the trees, this big, crazy light that just fills up the sky.”