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.
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.