The finale track to Matthew Houck’s new Phosphorescent masterpiece, Muchacho, is called “Sun’s Arising (A Koan, An Exit).” It evokes a beautiful hymnal of choral-flavored salvation, a fitting finish to a beautiful work of art that is his sixth full-length but second LP of original content after 2009’s beguiling ode to Willie Nelson, To Willie. Houck’s hand in jangly, sun-drenched rock is effortless, earnest and flawless. The Alabama native and current Brooklynite’s rarely alone in this pursuit (he hires stellar hands to support him on stage and sometimes in the studio), but he’s the brains and the brawn in this outfit. He’s a perfectionist and has a brilliant ear, arranging everything but allowing help in the form of a first-rate engineer named John Agnello, who has worked with Kurt Vile and Male Bonding. The end result is one of the best records of the year and the album to blast once it starts staying sunny.
Houck’s always had a bit of a sad soul, and sad souls often make the best records. Isn’t it euphoric when sadness results in absolute beauty? Envision Houck, alone at a bar, bearded and a little bedraggled, an empty shot glass and a half-full pint in front of him, barely engaging the bartender while he composes in his head. His songs legitimately feel beer-born, with a wavering vocal that portrays deep, dense emotion and a hardened sojourn with regret. However, with the use of a little tambourine and some horns, pedal steel guitar and welcome strings, each track becomes a bittersweet moment that reflects the anguish of unrequited love or magnetic attraction rebuffed. It communes with this hurt and converts it into a therapeutic sonic salve.
In the way that Conor Oberst captured such punishing hurt on I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning back in 2001, you can grip the pain that comes out of Houck and knead it into a tool of reparative worth. There seems to be a direct correlation, in my mind, to this Bright Eyes-informed melancholy that starts with a melody, a song and becomes an overture of humanity with the help of more instruments and an undeniable penchant for whiskey. As the seed of a gem like “Song for Zula,” it’s easy to picture Houck playing his guitar on a sunny day at a grassy park in Athens, Ga., his fingers trying to keep up with a tune he’s had in his head for days while his friend barely listens, rolling up something beside a brown-bagged six-pack. The stellar single’s a tender hymnal that hopes for love while longing for the ability to be loved.
Each song on Muchacho reveals new hurt and new sadness. The gentle piano on the bruised “Terror in the Canyons (Wounded Master)” practically conjures the emotionality of a classic like “Unchained Melody,” but beautifully embeds it in a delightful tradition of country music mixed with bluegrass. A spin of this one would earn Houck a welcome spot on rosters with the likes of Galaxie 500, Calexico, Neko Case, the Feelies, Dawes, Megafaun, the Dodos or M. Ward. If folkie rock a la Mumford & Sons and the Lumineers are pioneering a new era in popular rock, hopefully this is the watershed beginning of a spate of emotionally spiked country rock. This show could be so poignant and pretty, it’ll bring you to tears.
Mon., March 25, 8pm. $13-$15. With Strand of Oaks. Johnny Brenda’s, 1201 N. Frankford Ave. 215.739.9684. johnnybrendas.com