Band of the Week: Phosphorescent

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Hometown: Brooklyn, New York
Fun Fact: The London Evening Standard called Phosphorescent principal songwriter Matthew Houck “the most significant American in his field since Kurt Cobain.”
Why It’s Worth Watching: Brimming with lush harmonies, groaning acoustic textures and vivid storytelling, Phosphorescent is what Brian Wilson would have sounded like had he grown up in the South against a backdrop of Appalachian folk and gospel variants.
For Fans Of: Will Oldham, Vic Chesnutt, Akron/Family

Considering that we now live in the era of overnight sensations, when but a few enthusiastic bloggers can launch a band from basement anonymity to burgeoning international fame, it’s easy to forget that sometimes really great acts still struggle to find their audience. For whatever reason, Phosphorescent has been one of those groups, with main songwriter Matthew Houck left to wonder just why his band’s richly organic and surreal Americana fell between the cracks when less distinctive buzz bands collapsed under their own wave of hype. With Pride, Houck is back to say that he’s done with modesty.

“I think it’s a fucking good record, and I’m fucking proud of it,” he says bluntly of his third full-length, a largely solo affair that he pieced together after his move from Athens, Georgia to New York City. “I was expecting [my previous] records to take off more than they did. I had too much confidence, actually, just thinking that putting out the record was enough. I didn’t want to do very many interviews or talk about this stuff. I just wanted the record to be there and people would hear it and it would catch on. People that have listened to them really like them and get into them, but for whatever reason, it hasn’t translated to record sales. I guess I was a little naïve about how that stuff works.”

Of course, it doesn't help that Houck fronts a band with no clear or consistent lineup; anywhere from four to 15 members can turn up at any given performance. Even worse, Houck’s blend of elaborate harmonies, pedal steel swells and startlingly intimate detours has shaken off any easy genre designation, his creaky tenor immediately pushing his output into its own private universe. “It depends on what you hear,” Houck says of his music’s Rorschach-test quality. “Some nights we’ll go out and be paired with some really bad country band, some nights we’ll be paired with some really bad indie rock band, and some times it will be a gospel-type band. I don’t know where we fit in. I don’t think it’s all that easily categorized.”

Pride isn’t likely to help things in that regard, ranging from the solemn ukulele strums of “Wolves” to the reverberating piano strikes of “Cocaine Lights.” There are burned out love ballads (“My Dove, My Lamb”) and wispy, swirling meditations (“A Picture of our Torn Up Praise”), all united by Houck’s earnestly ragged sense of arrangement and Southern gothic sensibilities. Perhaps most arresting is “At Death, A Proclamation,” its dark piano rumination complete with the tumbling rhythms of a drum corps comprised of collaborators Houck never met.

“That was when I was still in Georgia, and I happened to pass by this parking lot,” he recalls. “There’s a university [in Athens], you know, and there were these drum guys, probably 50 of them, just practicing. And I had my little tape recorder, so I just pulled over and recorded them for 10 minutes. That’s one of my favorite parts of that record, and it sounds all good and wobbly from that tape, as well. It’s like the only real drumming on that record.”

Add it up, and it’s a record that Houck has every reason to be proud of, one that justifies his boasts, whether or not it finds an audience commensurate to its quality. For Phosphorescent, the days of quiet modesty are long gone. “I was trying to convince the record label to let me stand nude on the cover, and I would have if I could have,” he says candidly. “But they only let me stand shirtless, and even then it got too dark.” He sighs. “But I’m proud of it."

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