[25 July 2004]
There’s a track entitled “When We Fall” on Phosphorescent’s new EP The Weight of Flight that exposes a forgotten intention of folk music. That intention is to unite a community under the auspices of melody so irresistible, that all those in its path are rendered helpless to do anything but bang away on homegrown instruments in a whirlwind of joy. Far too often folk music is defined by a solitary man or woman singing a solemn song over a solemn guitar rather than by the folk the music is meant to move, or, at the very least, involve. The raucous piano, horns and handclaps on “When We Fall” recall a time when music was the priority and privilege of a mystical land somewhere between the saloon and the church. Even a listener distant in time and place from the song’s conception can barely withstand the primal urge to sing, howl, and stomp his or her feet.
Phosphorescent is the current recording alias of Athens, Georgia musician Matthew Houck. Houck has received his share of complimentary press in recent years, including comparisons to the stratospheric residents of the folkie set, Dylan and Will Oldham, as well as the more recently anointed denizens like Grandaddy and Papa M. He’s got an achy break-y croon that lends weight to a line like “Sadly in search of / One step in back of themselves / And their slow moving dreams” from a rain-soaked home recording of Sharon Vaughn via Willie Nelson’s “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys.” But, if anything, he leans on this croon too heavily. Rather than capitalizing on the energy of “When We Fall” he surrounds it with melancholy and largely solo compositions that leave it awkwardly positioned like a station break between the real hard-hitting news. There’s a magic in “When We Fall” that deserves deep exploration, but for now, we are left with an examination of five somewhat disappointingly pleasant moments.
It should be noted that Phorphorescent officially boasts six members in addition to Houck. These fellas are responsible for the hootin’ and hollerin’ on “When We Fall”, but they also handle bass, drum, and key duties on the album’s other tracks. In fact, they damn near rock out by the end of “Not Right, You Know.” The first three minutes of the song consists of Houck singing and plucking guitar over accordion-style sustain, a spell which is soon broken by a rush of distortion, cymbal pounding and multi-tracked guitar, keyboard, and horn melodies. “Mrs. Juliette Low” shows Houck’s voice at its most vulnerable and his writing at its most imagined and captivating. The cover of “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys” proves that song to be painfully beautiful, which will come as a revelation to most listeners, including myself. Unfortunately, the album’s first two tracks seem to languish when compared with the rest of the material. Both “Toes out to Sea” or “All of It, All” recall Will Oldham at his most methodical and lamenting. Neither track can either escape or fully relish the deliberate pace of loss.
By the end, all of this going it alone seems a sad reminder of unnecessary burdens we put on ourselves. Houck has found willing company, he needs to find a way to pay them their due.