What’s perhaps most striking about Phosphorescent’s live album is just how intimate Matthew Houck’s vocals manage to sound. In the studio, there’s an inviting warmth that burrows deep into the listener’s ear; an organic pleasantness that sounds both well worn and comfortably familiar. Live, this same inherent quality is present in his otherwise unaffected vocals. It’s no small feat to be able to convey the intimacy of a studio environment in front of an audience, let alone do so seemingly effortlessly.
And it’s not that Houck’s vocals seek to merely replicate his studio vocals. Rather they carry with them a lived in quality that, while instantly recognizable and familiar, offer a number of subtle cracks and quavers throughout that lend a delicate immediacy often lost in the more polished studio efforts. Often bordering on high and lonesome, his is an ideal instrument for these songs of heartache and loss. There’s a very particular cry in his voice that causes it to occasionally catch in his throat, creating a sense of emotionality that alternates from a whisper to a ragged scream (“Terror in the Canyons (The Wounded Master)”).
Free from the constraints of the studio, the band stretches out not only in terms of song length, but also instrumentally, taking a number of chances as they rage through nearly two hours of material. Utilizing a full array of dynamic contrasts, they manage to move from subdued breaks to furious solo passages within a matter of moments.
“The Quotidian Beasts” sways furiously between the two, quiet one moment, raging the next. It’s an impressive feat executed with a nuance and subtlety often lacking in a live setting more prone to guitar histrionics. The dynamic rise and fall make the mountainous highs all the more impressive when contrasted with the canyon-like lows. Despite its nearly eight-minute running time, it never once overstays its welcome, progressing almost suite-like through its contrasting sections before coming to a triumphant conclusion.
Throughout Phosphorescent proves its amiable country rock is at its best in a live set. Stretching out well past the confines of their studio versions, songs are allowed to breathe and take on new and different shapes. Much like the monolithic live albums of classic rock’s heyday which Live at the Music Hall clearly seeks to emulate, Phosphorescent tends to stick to more well known material. Playing as a veritable greatest hits collection, it’s a near-perfect introduction to the group, an easily accessible entry point that highlights the band’s charms,
Largely frontloading the album with material from their latest studio release, 2013’s exceptional Muchacho, Phosphorescent manage to dig deep into their prodigious and impeccable back catalog. Hearing Here’s to Taking It Easy’s “Tell Me Baby (Have You Had Enough)” and “Nothing Was Stolen (Love Me Foolishly)” back-to-back helps further affirm their greatness as well as Houck’s gift for a simple hook.
Aw Come Aw Wry’s “Dead Heart” is given a blistering, extended workout with multiple guitar solos that manage to stretch the song well beyond its original running time. Veering dangerously close to jam band territory, the band manages to avoid falling into incessant noodling by delivering emotionally charged, concise solos rather than aimless wandering.
The songs from Muchacho, however, possess a greater sense of musical tightness, evidence of months on the road spent performing them over and over. By contrast, some of the older songs carry with them a ragged quality, feeling more like a loose jam built around the basic idea of a song.
Despite this, the album’s centerpiece is the majestically epic reading of Here’s to Taking It Easy’s “Los Angeles”. Given an impassioned vocal performance that easily rivals that of the studio version and extended room to explore the song’s potential, it comes alive in the best way possible. Sounding like a lost gem from the heyday of bloated classic rock live album’s, “Los Angeles” offers everything great and wonderful about a band playing live: the immediacy of the moment and the unbridled creativity that can be generated by an appreciative and receptive audience. Not a second of its ten minutes plus running time is wasted.
The solo performances near the album’s middle, while intimate and getting to the heart of the music itself, tend to drag without the aid of the band. This is especially true on the ten-minute rendition of Pride’s “Wolves” that finds Houck layering his vocals until they threaten to collapse in on themselves. With stretched out phrases and other assorted vocalizations within the loop, it becomes an almost indecipherable mess of sound. While there is a great deal of emoting occurring on Houck’s part, it doesn’t quite function as effectively as it could. But this simply continues the somewhat free-form approach applied to much of the material here; it’s ragged and not always pretty, but it carries with it a go-for-broke attitude that is certainly admirable if not entirely effective.
Coming as they did at the end of an extended tour, these shows carry with them a sense homecoming and conviviality permeating the whole of the album. It’s within this atmosphere that the music of Phosphorescent works best, imbued with a warmth and organic quality that can often be lost when songs make the transition from studio to stage. It’s friends playing for friends and loving every minute of it.
At nearly two hours it can be a bit much to attempt to sit through all at once. However given the overall quality of the material and the performances, those that do will find themselves well rewarded if not outright converted.
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