Phosphorescent - The BBC Sessions EP Music Album Reviews

Phosphorescent - The BBC Sessions EP Music Album Reviews
A set of intimate, in-studio performances from Matthew Houck’s creative breakthrough in the early 2010s reveals new meaning and intensity in his tough-hearted songs.

The albums Matthew Houck released in the late 2000s and early 2010s were gregarious affairs. In addition to streamlining his songwriting and scouting out a scuffed-up brand of outlaw country, he shifted the focus away from Phosphorescent as a solo project. On his early albums he’d been the main player, and often the only one, introducing himself as a weirdo hermit fashioning clanging contraptions from old sounds. By comparison, 2010’s Here’s to Taking It Easy and 2013’s Muchacho, with their volleys of horns and dust clouds of guitars, sound almost like a party, one that grew wilder as Houck took an unruly, purposefully unrehearsed band on tour with him. Surprisingly, their presence only made his songwriting sound more haggard and world-weary, as though all those players were a buttress against the “new terror in the canyons, the new terror in our chests,” as he sings on “Terror in the Canyon (The Wounded Master).”
It is a revelation, then, to hear five songs from this era stripped back to their barest bones, unguarded and unshielded. The BBC Sessions was recorded during two stops in England in 2011 and 2013, with Houck accompanying himself on electric guitar. Jo Schornikow provides some impressionistic piano and backing vocals, but such is the sensitivity of her performance that she actually reinforces the solitude of this EP. Houck stands alone, vulnerable. If on the originals he came across like a man who’d been through the shit and landed on safe shores, then these more austere versions suggest he’ll never get a safe distance away from the heartache and horror. “At Death A Proclamation,” off 2007’s Pride, is transformed: there’s no drumline, no crashing guitars, no big choruses, just Houck quietly testifying and playing his guitar like he’s revving a motorcycle for a quick getaway. There’s no romance, just regret: “One day I tarried too far, and I never came home,” he sings, and the sentiment sounds heavier for having so much space and silence around the notes.

Even when he sings about racing on the desert plains all night on “Song for Zula,” which remains one of the most tough-hearted love songs of the 2010s, the impression isn’t of a man sowing his wild oats but of someone running himself ragged, if not to death. “Love is a caging thing,” he muses, although freedom might be even more dangerous. In interviews from this era, Houck seemed aware that the hard-touring life of an indie rock musician was grinding him down, that he had been racing too far and too fast. His albums were a way to shout down his demons and reflect on his own worst impulses; they carry the weight of brutal self-reflection. The EP, however, has different stakes. These songs sound like missives from the road, and that treacherous terrain gives the performances a palpable sense of desperation.

What did it take to perform “Terror in the Canyon (The Wounded Master)” every night for months on end? The BBC version chucks the two-step country beat that civilized his original along with the smeared pedal steel that colors the version on 2015’s Live at the Music Hall. Houck sounds wrung out, nearly feral, especially when he gets to the lines, “I was a bleeding actor, and I was the stage.” Houck draws out that last word as long as his voice can bear it, then pushes it a little more. He sings the “g” in “stage” like he’s digging a bullet out of his shoulder. It sounds painful. Perhaps that maimed quality would feel less potent if he’d set these sessions loose seven or eight years ago, and splitting the songs up as B-sides or bonus tracks would surely have sapped them of their power. Disconnected from any round-number album anniversary or reissue campaign, the EP becomes more than a mere footnote to Phosphorescent’s creative breakthrough. Instead, it’s a release that potentially changes how we hear those records. These new versions don’t aim to supplant the originals but they distill and hopefully disarm the terror that inspired them.
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About Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera

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Phosphorescent - The BBC Sessions EP Music Album Reviews Phosphorescent - The BBC Sessions EP Music Album Reviews Reviewed by Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera on June 29, 2021 Rating: 5


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