Here’s To Taking It Easy

Rating: 2.5/5.0

Label: Dead Oceans

When Phosphorescent released To Willie, a collection of 10 Willie Nelson covers that strayed from the eerily gorgeous and spare style that Matthew Houck mastered on several releases prior, I didn’t know whether to welcome a little country gloss or to fear for his future. After all, it was a half-hour covers album and could have just been viewed as a casual genre exercise. Houck’s achingly angelic and hungover voice has always been what’s tied Phosphorescent together, and on To Willie, it sounded as good – and pained – as ever. Then came the news that he’d be touring with adult contemporary god David Gray on a full U.S. tour preceding the release of Phosphorescent’s new set of originals, Here’s To Taking It Easy. That borderline cringe-worthy news, coupled with the cheeseball album title, cover and “WTF?” first single, “It’s Hard To Be Humble (When You’re From Alabama),” made my heart sink a bit.

All right, maybe I’m being hard on the guy. Given the opportunity to tour large venues with an internationally-renowned (though a bit washed-up) folk star and actually spend some money on recording a new album in the studio with a real band for the first time, I’m sure most on Houck’s level would bite the bullet and give it a go too. Unfortunately, my fears for Here’s To Taking It Easy were fully realized: lyrics dumbed down multiple levels from past peaks like “My Dove, My Lamb” and “Mrs. Juliette Low,” no sign of the casually spaced-out production that made Pride and A Hundred Times or More so appealing, and a band that gets the job done but could pass for any one of the countless incarnations of Ryan Adams’ Cardinals. Having gotten all of that out of me, it’s not a bad album by any means – I’m sure the David Gray crowds ate it up, and Houck might actually get some radio play out of it. But as the official follow-up to Pride, one of the most promising albums from a young, relatively unknown songwriter I’ve heard in a decade, it would be difficult to disappoint me more.

The horn-infused I-IV-V blues of “It’s Hard To Be Humble (When You’re From Alabama)” doesn’t really provide a window into the album that is to follow, only signaling that it will be infinitely more polished than anything Houck’s done so far – including To Willie. “Nothing Was Stolen (Love Me Foolishly)” features a sweet little twist on a familiar folk melody and could have been at snug at home on Pride or A Hundred Times or More, but that stupid David Gray faux-electronic drumbeat is impossible to shake. Maybe this is evolution, but it’s the kind that leads to the adult-contemporary XM radio station and not to the sort of artistic plateau where major influences like Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Wilco and Bill Callahan rest. Songs like “We’ll Be Here Soon,” “I Don’t Care If There’s Cursing” and “Heaven, Sittin’ Down,” come off as nothing but nice variations on the lighthearted, road-centric Willie Nelson formula, while others don’t rise above the muck of Adams’ Cold Roses (itself a transparent amalgam of Grateful Dead and Neil Young influences) and its often aimless instrumental breaks.

That last bad habit nearly ruins a sweet, subtle gem like “The Mermaid Parade,” which involves about a trip home to see his girlfriend that instead turns into him dancing out by the ocean with naked women. While “Hej, Me I’m Light” echoes the reverb-drenched vocal layers of Pride, the only song on Taking It Easy that truly stacks up with the best of Phosphorescent’s past work is the nine-minute closer “Los Angeles,” a dark, Crazy Horse-esque guitar workout that has been a staple of the band’s live show since fall of 2009. With less honky-tonk lyrics (“The road is alive/ Everybody’s all here/ I’m closing my eyes ’til the colors appear“), it’s easily the high point here. It’s unfortunately too little too late though. If this collection is the sound of Matthew Houck taking it easy, I’d hope when it comes time to record the next Phosphorescent record, he decides to roll up his sleeves and get to work.

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