There are derivative songwriters, and then there are guys who warrant comparisons to countless others simply because they deal in musical forms that have been around for decades. Phosphorescent’s Matthew Houck falls into the latter category, but that doesn’t mean he’s been excused from adding new elements to his sound. With his first five albums, the Alabama-raised, Brooklyn-residing Houck tended to navigate country- and folk-based territories that evoked contemporaries and all-time luminaries alike (Neil Young, Will Oldham, and Conor Oberst to name a few). But with the new Muchacho, we find him as exploratory with his craft as ever, and the result does more than enough to distinguish him from his usual reference points.
Muchacho is, for starters, a tapestry of sounds. Here, Houck gets more mileage out of effects pedals than pedal steel, not to mention a ton of bonus arrangements that lend the record some serious muscle. Bringing together bursts of horns, airborne Fleet Foxes harmonies, and linings of violins and piano, this is just a gorgeously recorded album. (It doesn’t hurt that John Agnello, the producer who helped make Kurt Vile’s Smoke Ring for My Halo one of the richer singer-songwriter LPs in recent memory, gets an engineering credit here.) Plus, where Houck’s voice has often been cracked and almost too vulnerable, it’s stronger than ever here, and songs like “Song for Zula” or “Muchacho’s Tune” wouldn’t be as effective otherwise.
Of course, in 2007, Houck released an album of nothing but Willie Nelson covers, so we know the rudiments of great songwriting are too important to him to be given up in favor of sonic heft. That’s not to say there’s a “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” here — there isn’t — but penultimate track “Down to Go”, for one, would work pretty damn well if stripped to just acoustic guitar and voice. Factoring in both songs like “Down” and the grandeur of “Song for Zula” and “A Charm, a Blade”, Muchacho is a well balanced listen, one that finds Houck adding new hues to old canvases and striking gold at every turn.
Essential Tracks: “Song for Zula”, “A Charm, a Blade”, and “Muchacho’s Tune”