What is authenticity, really? When a critic says that something sounds “authentic”, what does he or she actually mean? There are occasions when an artist performs so brilliantly within a given genre that the term applies and carries some weight. However, more often than not, “authenticity” means nothing more than a collection of carefully realized clichés. What is the point of sounding authentic if it comes at the price of originality?
Phosphorescent is the brainchild of Tim Houck, who at the age of 26 is already making some extraordinary claims in his press bio. Aligning himself with Jeff Magnum, Will Oldham, Neil Young and Bob Dylan, Houck certainly isn’t bashful and is definitely ambitious. The album’s 12 songs stretch languorously over 62 minutes, fleshed-out by a wide array of instrumentation ranging from horns to pedal steel to pump organ. On paper the album certainly sounds like a sweeping epic, but for all its grandeur, Aw Come Aw Wry is the bloated excess of a songwriter who has yet to learn how to edit his dramatic, sad sack muse.
If there is going to be any enjoyment in Aw Come Aw Cry, the listener will have to buy Tim Houck’s voice. He has a frustrating and thoroughly annoying habit of intentionally making his voice crack. Though thankfully never reaching the heights of Tim Kinsella’s pre-pubescent squeal, it is nonetheless a ridiculous ploy to infuse sympathy into the songs. While the use of his voice is a desperate tactic, these aren’t the only tools in Houck’s arsenal designed to rouse depression out of his listeners. “Dead Heart”, “(South Of) America” and “Endless Pt. 2” employ a backing choir throughout the entirety of each song, so that instead of punctuating certain moments, Houck punctuates all of them—rendering the emotional power useless. Even the very structures of the songs themselves are built upon fairly conventional archetypes. With the exception of “Joe Tex, These Taming Blues” and “I Am a Full Grown Man (I Will Lay in the Grass All Day)”, each song lopes along at a depressive’s pace, while the drummer practically falls asleep at the kit, hitting his snare the requisite once every four beats. Oh sure, the wheezing pump organ and whining pedal steel are nice enough, but they don’t do anything particularly memorable.
But the worst crimes of all are the album’s indulgent instrumental passages. “Aw Come Aw Wry parts #5, 6 & 3” (yes, in that pretentious order) add nothing to the album’s overall scope and depth. Though less than a minute each, the repetition of the meaningless album title and the formulaic countrified atmosphere are completely unnecessary, as is the ridiculous 19-minute closer “Nowhere Rd., Georgia, Feb. 21, 2005”. With no music present, it is merely the sound of rain falling and cars passing outside of a window. Are we supposed to be charmed by this? Is this some kind of hyperrealism that’s supposed to make the rest of the album resonate with that much more sincerity? Somewhere in this sprawling mess of a record, there’s a good EP waiting to get out.
Aw Come Aw Wry is a curious failure. In trying to emulate his idols, Houck forgets the key ingredient that made all those aforementioned artists legends. They believed in their songs. While all are gifted lyricist backed by fantastic bands, their gift came from a simple belief in the undeniable sincerity of the words that came out of their mouths and the chords they struck on their guitars. Houck has yet to find confidence in his abilities and instead offers an album of emotions without humility that are ultimately deadened by the disc’s artificial trappings.