Whether it be fate or just the logical conclusion of listening to a good amount of music, it seems like I have been on a collision course with Phosphorescent for the past five years. Let me explain: I have a method of organizing my music in iTunes that, when I like a song, I give it the five star rating. I do not rate anything else. If you have iTunes, you know that this files the song into a “top rated” folder, and a good amount of the time I listen to this folder on random. As of right now, there are 13.5 GBs of tunes in that folder. At some point in 2005, I listened to Phosphorescent’s Aw Come Aw Wry and five-starred “I Am Not A Heel”, then for the next couple years would always hear it and think “I should listen to that album again.” Eventually, I lost half my music collection in a freak external hard-drive switch over. Bye bye Phosphorescent, bye bye thinking about them (or him).
At some point I picked up Pride, but when I received Phosphorescent’s latest release, Here’s To Taking It Easy, I listened to it quickly on gut feeling alone, with only Pride and the memory of “I Am Not A Heel” to inform it. And Pride, though I respected it, never really captured my interest. But now that I think about, Phosphorescent is the prototype of my kind of music, a combination of the cool collaborations and creative spirit found in cities with the traditional Americana my father loved (in fact, the only concert I have ever attended with my father: Willie Nelson at the Hollywood Bowl w/Ryan Adams and Neko Case). From opener “It’s Hard To Be Humble (When You’re From Alabama)”, it will take you about five seconds to know if you will be capable of liking the album. If you are a person who “likes anything but country,” well, for one you are on the wrong website, but also, you won’t like this record. At all. Which is a shame, because it is one of the finest I’ve heard all year.
If you know anything about Phosphorescent, you have probably heard that this is the first album that was recorded as a band in the traditional sense, using the same group that worked on To Willie, the previous release under the moniker. Prior to that, Phosphorescent was Matthew Hoeck’s recording name with whatever band he could assemble. And the album does rely less on the typical singer-songwriter numbers that made up Pride. In fact, the band’s arrangements are noticeably tight, even if you didn’t know to pay attention to it and are most conspicuous on the record’s upbeat numbers. Yeah, you read that correctly. There are upbeat numbers.
On the album opener, Hoeck makes it clear where he is going on this record by evoking the muse of Alabama, like the beginning of a great odyssey. The vocals are put front and center, but like The Grateful Dead or The Band, the musicians’ range cannot be held back by a less-than flattering recording style. Later on, we get “I Don’t Care If There’s Cursing”, again with the band hitting all the right piano fills, a tambourine shake kicking in at the right time and slide guitar weaving through the entire song. Hoeck has finally assembled more than studio musicians. He has assembled a band. And from the sounds of it, he is relaxing and expanding his songs to suit their strengths.
But Phosphorescent’s new incarnation, and specifically Hoeck, are at their strongest in the sad songs. Anyone with an appreciation for a slow song or a sad song, who gains comfort hearing someone relate the emotions they are feeling, or who spends time alone not necessarily by choice will find a new go-to in Here’s To Taking It Easy. “Tell Me Baby (Have You Had Enough)” sounds like a Van Morrison cover, heartbreaking and romantic at the same time. Even the refrain creates the juxtaposition of breaking apart while still referring to her as baby. ”We’ll Be Here Soon” plays like a classic Eagles song, except Hoeck is far more adventurous, inserting the line “lay your ass out on the floor” as a key line, knowing that it doesn’t sound as traditional with that language, and it’s the break from tradition that will take this genre album into classic territory.
And I haven’t even gotten to the best songs yet.
At only nine tracks in length, Here’s To Taking It Easy doesn’t have any time to waste and never offers a throw away or even a disappointing number. “The Mermaid Parade” seems to be the number getting the most attention, but when you tie Los Angeles and New York City to a lovely long distance tale of longing and loss, well, you will probably please just about everyone. But “Nothing Was Stolen (Love Me Foolishly) is possibly more relatable, opening with the tragic line, “Well apart from the things that I touched, nothing got broken all that much,” setting up the man who thinks he is not worth loving but wants to be loved nonetheless. And, album closer “Los Angeles” is an absolute stunner, coming in just under nine minutes of tear-in-your-beer glory. The song seems like the bitter companion piece to “The Mermaid Parade”, but is equally immediate because it feels, well, so damn real.
And while there is none of the moodiness and experimentation that prevailed throughout Pride, it doesn’t mean Phosphorescent has grown complacent or soft or boring. Hoeck still makes this country turn feel new because he doesn’t rely on cliches; rather he uses the life he has made in New York to inform the songwriting. And the results are simply fantastic. Here’s To Taking It Easy is the kind of record that you put on your iTunes and let it keep playing the other Phosphorescent records after it finishes. Hoeck’s voice, as worn and broken as the heart he is singing from, is so comforting in its honesty that it’s hard to imagine feeling alone when you are lonely ever again. Chalk up another one to Brooklyn, but thank the South too. Some collisions were just bound to happen.