Unhurried, careworn phrasing. A natural ability to ingest a tear-stained dose of melancholy to chirpiest of numbers. A penchant for tunes cataloguing the travails of a life spent heading to the next joint. Considering the qualities Matthew Houck – the songwriter trading as Phosphorescent – shares with Texan legend Willie Nelson, a tribute to the bandanna-ed pot connoisseur seems apt, as odd as the idea of a Brooklyn-dwelling alt. rock hipster slapping on the tattered Stetson of a bona fide country star at first seems.
What’s more, ‘To Willie’ turns out to be a low-key triumph. Covers album have accrued something of a dodgy reputation as band-aids administered to help hop over a creative drought, low-input contractual obligation fillers and horribly misguided howlers launched in the mistaken assumption that a band can somehow miraculously improve on the classic originals by either churning them out note for note or subjecting them to ill-advised radical overhauls. Wisely dodging the most obvious choices (don’t seek ‘Night Life’ or ‘Crazy’ here), the loose, lowdown and lovely ‘To Willie’, recorded with a minimum of fuss with Houck’s road band, pumps fresh blood into the knackered concept, continuing Phosphorescent’s mission to catapult road-weary Americana to some new, exciting places, as launched on the brilliantly battered-sounding 2007 breakthrough ‘Pride’.
Unsurprisingly, the desolate, 3am resignation of ‘The Party’s Over’, powered by a disorientating quilt of multi-tracked vocals, as first aired during shows in support of ‘Pride’, during which Houck also sampled ditties from the songbooks of Radiohead and Dire Straits (now that would’ve been a beguiling cover album project!), provides one of the album’s most startling moments. Easily as good are ‘Reasons to Quit’, an easy-rolling anthem to healthier living that never seems to arrive, the bare-bones anguish of ‘It’s Not Supposed to Be That Way’ and the unadorned hymn ‘Too Sick to Pray’, crooned just as aching and sincere as Nelson’s own desert-dry version on the unfairly obscure 1996 album ‘Spirit’. It’s not all heartbreak and regret, as ‘Pick Up the Tempo’ and ‘I Gotta Get Drunk’ both head towards the sawdust-and-spit adorned honky tonk, the latter with a suitably unsteady gait. After all this, even the odd misstep – the oddly stilted, synth-heavy glide through ‘Permanently Lonely’, a slightly uneasy-sounding ‘Heartaches of a Fool’ – can’t keep ‘To Willie’ from taking its well-deserved place as the first genuinely noteworthy Americana release of 2009.