Posted on February 5th, 2009 (2:36 pm) by Amelia England

Lead singer Matthew Houck has released three full-length albums under the moniker of Phosphorescent: Pride in 2007, Aw Come Aw Wry in 2005, and A Hundred Times or More back in 2003. And now, after covering The Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” and Nick Cave’s “Right Now I’m-A Roamin,’” the freak-folkster is taking on some of the great Willie Nelson’s less prominent tracks in Phosphorescent’s recently-released album To Willie.

Overall, I like the style of Matthew Houck. His most recent album, Pride, is haunting and ponderous. I frequently return to his second full-length Aw Come Aw Wry, an album that shows off brooding, cracking vocals, an impressive brass section, some idiosyncratic foundations for Pride, and experimental detours that, despite lacking an overall tidiness, give the album real distinction. One would think that, based on precedents like “Joe Tex, These Taming Blues” and “Dead Heart” from Aw Come Aw Wry and “Wolves” from Pride, Houck could take on a classic like Willie Nelson with real grit and style, to succeed in a daring tribute album. However, despite high expectations, To Willie failed to actually arouse my interest, leaving me unsatisfied and alarmingly unimpressed.

With a few rare exceptions, it seems Houck stifled all experimental impulses that could have infused new energy into Willie Nelson’s originals. Take, for example, the Phosphorescent version of “Can I Sleep in Your Arms.” Nelson sings with real lyrical involvement and resonance, whereas Houck sounds halfhearted, confused and staggeringly deadpan in comparison. The same goes for “I Gotta Get Drunk,” where the uninspired tempo of the instruments seems like too much for Houck to handle. Houck needs to pace himself, darken things up a little, and work in grittier Phosphorescent terms if he means to bring new luster to these Willie Nelson originals.

The album does have some nice instrumentals, such as the Spanish guitar in “Too Sick to Pray,” piano in “Pick Up the Tempo,” and steel guitar in “Walkin,’” but they rarely challenge or surpass anything that Nelson could have done in the first place. Some of the only songs with a more Phosphorescent angle are “Permanently Lonely” and “The Last Thing I Needed,” where Houck finally incorporates an interesting electric guitar and high-pitched synths. Unfortunately, these more unique qualities make the two songs feel out of place; if only Houck was bold enough to apply the same elements to the rest of the album.

Despite being disappointed overall, I will say that To Willie does have a few successful elements. The recurring Spanish guitar is lovely, and, in songs like “Heartaches of a Fool” and “The Last Thing I Needed,” Houck’s voice is so pleasantly dry and moody that I almost forget his otherwise detached tone. Both “The Party’s Over” and “It’s Not Supposed to Be That Way” are probably the best cover songs, as they are some of the only points in the album where Houck strains his voice enough to convey real emotion.

A couple of songs with a nice Spanish guitar, however, aren’t nearly enough to make To Willie as compelling as it had the potential to be. The Nelson songs chosen for this album provide a lot of room for Houck to experiment, yet the end product falls disappointingly short of the merits in either Willie Nelson’s or Phosphorescent’s bodies of work. Matthew Houck needs to start on a cover of his cover album, this time without forgetting the gritty spirit that made Pride one of the best albums of 2007.

Track List

1. Reasons To Quit
2. Too Sick To Pray
3. Walkin'
4. It's Not Supposed To Be That Way
5. Pick Up The Tempo
6. I Gotta Get Drunk
7. Can I Sleep In Your Arms
8. Heartaches Of A Fool
9. Permanently Lonely
10. The Last Thing I Needed (First Thing This Morning)
11. The Party's Over

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