But Taking It Easy doesn’t follow that classic rock template for naught, even if a handful of recognizable trademarks litter the liner notes: the liberal use of parenthetical subtitles on a third of the album’s nine tracks; Houck’s demotic use of the word “old” as a universal descriptor; and the tossed-off rhymes of “I Don’t Care If There’s Cursing” might all suggest that. Credit’s mainly due to Houck’s haggard, heartfelt phrasing and the backing band’s pointed embellishments for avoiding that stale feeling of stock mimicry. Tracks like “Nothing Was Stolen (Love Me Foolishly)” and “Tell Me Baby (Have You Had Enough)” take a cue from so many lovelorn laments, but conjure up such simple, personal details to keep it genuine. The latter admits, “I know I spent most of my life in these bars/ Just standing here with this old guitar/ But tell me honey, have I gone too far?” while the former makes a paper-thin defense that “Apart from the things I touched, nothing got broke all that much,” then pleading, “Love me foolish-like.”
Standing tall in the middle of the album, though, is “The Mermaid Parade,” which Houck described as his “conscious attempt to write a narrative.” Using Coney Island’s annual festival as a backdrop, in which women march topless in scant, amphibious wear, Houck mixes openly revealing sentiments with veiled suggestion. “Only two weeks ago, our bodies were like live wires,” Houck mourns between twin guitar solos, “but I came back to this city and you stayed home in L.A./ And then our two years of marriage/ In two short weeks somehow just slipped away.” For such a typically abstract songwriter, Houck’s vulnerability summons a lump in the throat, which brims when he breaks down near song’s end with a crippled “Goddamn it, Amanda/ Ah, God damn it all.”
“Oh god, that song is so hard,” admits Ainslie. “I’ve played that song so many times, but last time I heard Matthew just sing it by himself, it kinda hurt my feelings. I can be perfectly honest. I got goosebumps; I felt like I was going to cry.”
An apt bookend and slant counterpoint to “Alabama,” closer “Los Angeles” offers a half-indicting, half-tragic jeremiad against the suffocating affection of west coast talent scouts. Sung in Houck’s cracked whine, depicting the corporate hawks as “just a-grinning from ear to ear,” the vocals feel squeamish, even a little standoffish, until the strain drops into a chorus of almost resigned regret. Then, a rousing chorus follows Houck’s lead as he sings, “Ah, you’re getting a lot of attention now/ Ah, you’re bleeding in every direction now/ Ah, they’re covering you up with affection now.”
Regardless of Phosphorescent’s newfound band dynamic and penchant for approachable rhinestone rock, “Los Angeles” is a stark reminder of their insistence on scratching the borders of their chosen sound. At nearly nine minutes, the song is a slinking, pressure-cooked slab of album rock that plays like a steady sit-in against radio-friendly musicianship. That said, it’s not often you see a band like Phosphorescent grace the stage of the Ryman, much less opening for a U.K. chart-crasher like David Gray, who personally invited the band on a trans-continental tour with him earlier this year. For one, it’s a fairly safe assumption that the crowd Gray attracts—a little older, a little more adult contemporary—has probably never heard of this Brooklyn fringe band. A three-day head cold wrecks Houck’s vocal chords as he practices back-up harmony to the Hank Williams standard “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” for an encore duet with Gray at the end of the headliner’s set. Even then, Houck is his shrugging, congenial self.
“Across the board, every night we’ve played, people have dug it,” he says with an air of graciousness. “Even though [our music] may seem a bit harsher than they would expect to hear, there’s only been acceptance.”
Besides this status bump, though, Phosphorescent seem almost custom-fit to dank, shotgun bars like The End, another Nashville den where they headlined last fall as part of Next Big Nashville—a four-day showcase of Music City’s budding talents as well as touring acts. Such venues make only a modest draw for a modest buck and don’t present nearly such intimidating environs as the Ryman. To put it mildly, many a mid-level band have miserably tanked underneath these vaulted ceilings and unforgiving church-choir acoustics. Talking to Houck, though, as he mows down a grilled chicken salad backstage after the show, the difference doesn’t seem all that important.
“You have to have faith in the songs and [understand] that how they’re presented is… ephemeral,” he says after a quiet moment spent conjuring that last word. “They’re a little bit more like the chaff,” he adds to clarify.
That may seem like an elliptical statement, but it’s also a telling clue as to how Phosphorescent approach music, especially their early work, while on stage. Set list mainstay “A Picture of Our Torn Up Praise” downplays the incantatory woops and vocal swells found on Pride, amps the tempo a bit and sees Houck ambling around on stage, dapperly speak-singing the lines to the audience members in the front rows. “I Am a Full Grown Man (I Will Lay in the Grass All Day)” loses some of its ramshackle tint, but adds an idle charm. The mood changes make for a more seamless segue into the rollicking Willie covers like “Reasons to Quit” and “The Party’s Over.” But even more to the point, it speaks to the constant flux these songs are in since they were once laid down in the studio.
“It is hard, sometimes, when you realize that people are only going to hear a song this one particular way,” Houck says. “And the version on the record happens to be the one.
“But the entire deal with Phosphorescent from the beginning is that these songs have…” Houck pauses again, staring down at his ravaged dinner plate trying to finish his thought. “A life of their own,” interjects Ainslie. “Several, yeah,” agrees Houck. “They become a completely different thing.”