Music

Phosphorescent: To Willie

Throughout To Willie, you find out Houck not only loves Nelson's music, but he has studied it. On every song he sifts through the track to get at the emotions closest to the bone.


Phosphorescent

To Willie

Label: Dead Oceans
UK Release Date: Available as import
US Release Date: 2009-02-03
Amazon
Amazon
iTunes

Covers albums are almost always fan-only fare, a nice little treat from bands to their most loyal followers. The trouble is these releases often underestimate fans' expectations, as bands often try to pass off half-assed collections of dull covers as something not only important to their discography but also heartfelt and earnest.

Sometimes an artist approaches the covers album with wild success. Cat Power's The Covers Record and Lambchop's What Another Man Spills are not only filled with fantastic and original performances, but each gives us a little insight into who these artists listened to and how their influences came together to shape their fresh perspective. To Willie, Phosphorescent's new collection of Willie Nelson songs, fits right in with these other solid discs.

That Matthew Houck was influenced by Willie Nelson comes hardly as a revelation. Like Nelson, Houck has a pervasive loneliness in his music, a solitary nature that manages to avoid being insular and instead reaches out for the part of us that feels lonely. What makes To Willie so entertaining is Houck's commitment to the record. This could have easily been a one-off release -- pumped out without too much thought and released as a hold over -- until he releases the next proper Phosphorescent album later in 2009.

Opener "Reasons to Quit" immediately announces Houck's intentions to make a great record. The original track, a duet between Nelson and Merle Haggard from the Poncho and Lefty album, had a little more sideways grin to it. Sure, the guys were talking about getting sober, but they seemed to smirk through the whole song, as if to say, "Nice thought, but it ain't happening." Houck's version, though pretty faithful in its instrumentation, sounds a little more direct in its melancholy, as he cuts past the winking joke and gets to the truth behind it. The warbling and cracked vocals belie the whiskey-soaked bounce of the track, and you quickly learn Houck not only loves Nelson's music, but he has studied it. And on this and many other tracks on the record, he sifts through them to get to the emotions closest to the bone.

Overall, Phosphorescent manages to make these songs their own without really reinventing them, and it's a real accomplishment. Most stay pretty close to the original in tempo and melody, but Houck assembles a just loose-enough country band behind him, and they play these songs with a lot of heart. Songs like "I Gotta Get Drunk" and "Pick Up the Tempo" surprise because they show the band very capable of upbeat country-rock songs. The songs prove a nice departure and counterpoint from Houck's usual balladry. Dipped in pedal steel, percussive piano and dusty drums in the back of the track, the songs sound loose the way the guitar lines layer on top of each other intricately.

That nice combination of stretched-out feel and meticulous recording builds a nice bridge between Phosphorescent's carefully layered recording sound and its more ramshackle live performance. In these livelier moments, including the excellent, but more mid-tempo closer "The Party's Over", To Willie starts to feel like a coda to Houck's career to this point, like the next Phosphorescent album will be the beginning of something new. After toiling in the studio over three albums and an EP to nail down his country soundscapes, he released the brilliant Pride in 2007. The more immediate sound on this record sounds like Houck is pulling free of all that and moving on to something new.

Of course, he can still get awfully quiet on To Willie. His knack for vocal harmonies makes "Can I Sleep in Your Arms Tonight" echo with a ghostly feel. "It's Not Supposed to Be That Way", perhaps his finest performance on the disc, simultaneously combines vintage Phosphorescent and vintage Nelson. Houck, hungover and heartbroken, mumbles though line after line before his voice surges to sing, "You're supposed to know that I love you." Of course where Willie would clear his voice and keen the note, Houck prefers to keep his trademark crackle in his big notes, too. And those big notes, which fill up the full-band slow number "Walkin'", make this song pulse with life -- even as it shuffles with heartache.

To Willie is not just a great covers album. It's a great album. Period. Nevermind that the performances are solid all the way through; that Houck and his band deliver a number of different sounds and tempos, staying pitch-perfect throughout; or that Nelson's source material is almost impossible to take down a bad road. What makes To Willie more than the sum of its parts? It feels like we're being let in on a relationship, between Houck and these songs, even between Houck and Willie himself. And by pulling us in with these intimate performances, Houck makes this covers album what so many fail to be: heartfelt and earnest. In the end, you might find yourself feeling closer, not just to Houck, but to his favorite red-headed stranger, too.

7
Music

The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

Keep reading... Show less

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less

Two recently translated works -- Lydie Salvayre's Cry, Mother Spain and Joan Sales' Uncertain Glory -- bring to life the profound complexity of an early struggle against fascism, the Spanish Civil War.

There are several ways to write about the Spanish Civil War, that sorry three-year prelude to World War II which saw a struggling leftist democracy challenged and ultimately defeated by a fascist military coup.

Keep reading... Show less
8

Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)


In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image