To Willie, from Matthew Houck

 

http://www.nyunews.com
by Michael Miller

“One, two, three,” Matthew Houck announces in his Brooklyn-by-way-of-Alabama accent. Then there is a swelling of twangy acoustic and electric guitars, grand piano, drums and bass, all buried in the subtle wash of reverb. The music lifts you up in its exhausted gentleness, like putting whiskey in your coffee on a particularly bad morning after.

Then Houck sings softly, his voice cracking, “Reasons to quit: The coke and booze don’t do me like before.” So much for uplifting. By the end of the first line of the first song, the bandleader sounds so defeated, it is hard to believe there is still an entire album to get through. But defeat rarely sounds this inviting.

“To Willie” is the latest project by Houck, the brains behind the folk-meets-country band Phosphorescent. “Willie” is not a typical downer folk album but an endearing tribute to country music and the genre’s best songwriter, Willie Nelson. Through 11 classic songs, either written by Nelson or associated with him, Houck takes the listener on a psychological tour de force. He brings you down lower and lower over the course of the record with an intensity of emotion and sincerity not heard in country music since Nelson’s own peak in the ’70s.

“I’ve always loved these songs,” Houck said. His hushed voice on the phone reflects his restraint on the record, though his shyness defies his musical soul-bearing. “We recorded them like they were Phosphorescent songs.”

The album’s tracks do sound like Phosphorescent, which is no small feat since Nelson is one of the most distinctive performers in popular music. His amalgamation of traditional honky-tonk, blues, western swing and rock-‘n’-roll created a musical hybrid that sticks out of the country genre like a rapper in Nashville. That Houck can make 11 of Nelson’s best performances into his own creative apex is an undeniable artistic victory.

Phosphorescent’s innovation is in the delivery. Whether Houck truly is a condemned man trying to save face with God is irrelevant. On “Too Sick To Pray” he sounds like one. His pain feels genuine, enough to make you feel it.

“I reckon that’s all Lord. That’s all I can think of to say,” sings Houck. He never does make his peace with God. He can only explain why he hasn’t made an appearance in a while. And God never does make an appearance himself.

Now we’re feeling really down, and Houck seems to understand. He offers up “Walkin’.” It’s slow — slower than the last two songs, but there is a hopeful dignity to it that is absent from the album’s opening duo.

“Walkin’ is better than running away, and crawlin’ ain’t no good at all.”

Houck’s voice rises and lifts his own spirits up noticeably. The rush of grief left over from “Too Sick To Pray” begins to soften and disappear entirely. This song is so simple it hurts. But this is country music. The point is not, “Whoa, I’ve never heard that before,” but rather, “I know exactly what you mean, man. I’ve been feeling pretty bad these last couple of days.”

“The songs absolutely resonate with me in a personal way,” Houck said. “It was no problem to remove Willie from it and put myself in there.”

And listening to the songs, it’s no problem to remove Houck from them and put yourself in there. This is country music’s true importance, aesthetically and culturally. To appreciate country music is to answer the hungover question, “Why did I do that last night?” To watch your lover walk out on you is to appreciate country music. To feel alone is to appreciate country music.

After the opening trio, the album continues to make you feel so lonesome you could cry. There are no low points; every song is as good as the last. “The Party’s Over” is as contradictory a closing song as “Reason’s To Quit” is an opener. If “To Willie” is a party, the morning after must be awful. But the album feels communal, comforting.

And so, on “I Gotta Get Drunk,” when Houck sings, “There’s more ol’ drunks than there are ol’ doctors so I guess we better have another round,” you feel a part of something. You sit in your apartment by yourself, but at the same time you sit in a country bar in Texas, drowning your sorrows, surrounded by friends.

Michael Miller is music editor. E-mail him at mmiller@nyunews.com.

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