Whilst attending Bestival in September of this year, I was recommended an American band called Phosphorescent by some friends, and attended their live show. I knew next to nothing about this band; not who they were, where they were from, or even what kind of music they played. After the show, I asked myself one question: why didn’t I know about them before?
Blending alt-country, folk and blues together, Phosphorescent create a sound which manages to sound very contemporary yet retains the classic sensibilities of country and folk. Phosphorescent frontman/founder/driving force Matthew Houck’s Southern twang recalls the country heroes of yesteryear; To Willie is not only an excellent record (paying tribute to Willie Nelson via a series of covers), but shows Houck’s ability to take an older style of music and make it feel fresh. Rather than simply dusting off these classic numbers, Houck gives them his own vocal varnish and simultaneously makes an album which both respects and refreshes the source material.
Originally from Athens, Georgia but now based in Brooklyn, New York, Phosphorescent have moved a long way from the country roots which have clearly so inspired them. However, this geographical change has not adversely affected their sound, and Phosphorescent’s most recent album Here’s To Taking It Easy offers an intriguing new take on country music, by moving it from the rural to the urban.
Whilst tracks like ‘It’s Hard to Be Humble (When You’re From Alabama)’ are more traditional in their approach, ‘Los Angeles’ is a country song about a city, yet it also deals with classic country themes: travel, love and strife. It’s a hugely ambitious, sprawling 8-minute journey through the west coast metropolis, combining an epic back-and-forth chorus with pained, regretful lyrics: “They call me coloured up here/I looked in their eyes/Said I ain’t came to Los Angeles, baby, just to die”.
These two albums are both the best offerings from Phosphorescent and the most recent. The early albums show flashes of brilliance, balance and beauty, but suffer from either being a touch too large in scale (Pride) or somewhat raw (A Hundred Times Or More). However, for those listeners who prefer their country music a mite more epic, these records can, on occasion, offer some superb moments, but generally don’t have the consistency of Houck’s last two albums.
Overall, though, Phosphorescent are a group to watch. When playing live, Houck is backed by something of a revolving door of musicians, but he relishes the spotlight and when he cuts loose, his best work transcends a handful of styles, capable of being anthemic or intimate. For country fans who are looking for music which is unafraid to pay tribute to its predecessors, and for those who want a new twist on this storied tradition, Phosphorescent are more than worth your time.
And for anyone who still thinks that country music is just for aging musicians and Mississippi farm hands, they might just surprise you too.
Best tracks: ‘Heaven, Sittin’ Down’, ‘Los Angeles’, ‘The Mermaid Parade’ from Here’s To Taking It Easy, ‘Walkin”, ‘The Last Thing I Needed (First Thing This Morning)’, ‘Pick Up The Tempo’ from To Willie.
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