Here's To Taking it Easy
Matthew Houck is good at parentheses. I mean this both literally and figuratively; his enticing song titles frequently feature them, as in “It’s Hard to be Humble (When You’re From Alabama)” and “Tell Me Baby (Have You Had Enough)” on this album as well as the expansive and charming “I Am A Full-Grown Man (I Will Lay in the Grass All Day)” on 2005’s Aw Come Aw Wry. But it’s a useful metaphor for explaining his music; on the surface, most basically, you get gentle, rustic folk songs grounded with pedal steel and heavy instrumentation, but his best lines and subtle emotion peeks out just barely, almost as an afterthought. Similarly, he’s become an unofficial Spokesman For The Well-Done Cover, slipping them unannounced into his various albums and making a splash with 2009’s To Willie, a resplendent and perfectly-arranged collection of Willie Nelson covers styled after Nelson’s own tribute to Lefty Frizell, To Lefty From Willie.
To Willie was a gorgeous album on its own; it seems like almost a coincidence that the songs happen to be covers. In some ways, the critical success of To Willie makes a review of his follow-up album, Here’s to Taking it Easy, difficult; it’s an odd position to be an extremely talented and intuitive band that makes better covers than originals. Unfortunately, that seems to be the parentheses faintly circling this newest release. (cont'd after the jump)
From the start, high expectations are dashed when the cleverly-named “It’s Hard to Be Humble (When You’re From Alabama)” turns exclusively honky-tonk. It’s a freewheeling jam loaded with brassy horns and an endless, repetitive structure, the cheesiness only suppressed by Houck’s crackling warble. The song– especially the earnest chorus, “Hear me Alabama, I was never meant to carry no shame,”— harkens back to Neil Young and Lynyrd Skynyrd’s various takes on the state, but echoes none so clearly as the Grateful Dead’s “Alabama Getaway.” All of which points to a larger trend in Houck’s latest work: he leans heavily on southern rock and jam-band influences here, especially taking guitar stylings from the Allman Brothers. This is clear on “Mermaid Parade,” a pleasant, dreamy recollection of an elusive, imagined bliss, drawing directly from the ABB’s “Dreams.” The vocal harmonies are on point, blending sweetly into mingling pedal steel and a clean lead guitar, but everything is drawn out about a minute and a half too long.
And if “Mermaid Avenue” is reminiscent of “Dreams,” then it comes as no surprise that “Hej, Me I’m Light” echoes the dark “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed.” I guess Houck has been digging the same copy of “A Decade of Hits” that I have. “Hej, Me I’m Light” comes across like a somber Protestant church hymn, funereal with a heavy marching bass drum and wild wailing vocals. This is the most adventurous track here, and a certain departure from the country sound, but it is more sonically interesting than sonically good.
Most of Here’s to Taking it Easy flows nicely, in keeping with what we have come to expect from the glittering, country-tinged folk of Phosphorescent, perhaps with a more maudlin vibe than previous albums. He does a fitting cover of “Heaven Sittin’ Down,” originally by Delta juke-joint bluesman R.L. Burnside, and “Tell Me Baby (Have You Had Enough)” lays on a thick pedal-steel guitar to accentuate the heartache. “Nothing Was Stolen (Love Me Foolishly)” is cinematic and entirely enjoyable, but nothing new.
Though there’s no masterpiece here, one winner is the nearly-nine-minute grungy “Los Angeles,” which is as much a literate portrait of a city-dwelling life as T.S. Eliot’s “lonely men in shirt sleeves leaning out of windows.” It’s a tried-and-true formula: pair a sinister verse with a major-chord chorus to move a song from depressing to magnificent. Phosphorescent executes this well here, where an old West saloon riff dominates the lengthy guitar solo, and even casual listeners can hang their hats on the last line before the pleasant chorus: “I ain’t come to Los Angeles, baby, just to die.”
-- Caroline Klibanoff
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