Matthew Houck didn’t exactly need a band to make his records. Despite recording most of it himself, Pride (his third full-length, released in 2007) was about as expansive and lush as music that lonesome can get. So we all knew he could put some hefty layers into his songs on his own.
But something happened when he brought the band into the studio with him on last year’s To Willie. Covering all those Willie Nelson tunes, Houck’s band made his sound leaner. Hell, even the ballads kicked up some dust in their way. The sound marked a move away from Phosphorescent as a solo project, and that move continues on Here’s to Taking It Easy.
Things aren’t all that lean here, though. This record beautifully meshes the band’s loose country feel with Houck’s ear for stretching sound out in the studio. Opener “It’s Hard to Be Humble (When You’re From Alabama)” is both a hint at what’s coming and a red herring at the same time. Houck, an Alabama boy himself, beefs up his hometown love with horns sections and twanging rock. The sound comes dangerously close to toppling under its own weight — almost like it could come from some of those overwrought late-’70s country records. But Houck and company give it just enough restraint to make it work. (And besides, it’s not like there are any other good songs about Alabama, so it’s about time.)
From there, though, the size of Here’s to Taking It Easy is built on more subtle layers. Songs like “The Mermaid Parade” and “Heaven, Sitting Down” churn with piano and tangled guitars, and the drums — both crashing and spacious throughout — give these songs a steady rumble to stretch out upon. Around these, Houck still finds space for his lovelorn ballads, and the other players add layers that echo out to forever on “Tell Me Baby (Have You Had Enough)” and “We’ll Be Here Soon,” which give the songs somehow more of a lonesome feel than Houck might have mustered with just voice and guitar.
The loose feel of all of these sounds — the guitar play, in particular — hints at the album title (which is surely to ruffle some Parrothead feathers). But while the album is, in some ways, about laying back and letting the world come to you, worry still circles it in the distance. The few times the record falls into something too laid back, as on the breezy “I Don’t Care If There’s Cursing,” are when that tension isn’t floating on the outskirts. “Hey, Me I’m Light” finds Houck lost in his love of repeating simple sounds, the way he did all over Aw Come, Aw Wry, and though the melody is immediate, it can’t totally carry for four minutes.
But those aren’t missteps so much as everything around them is a highlight. Though Houck deals in well-worn country tropes — the cold beer, the distant lover, the inexplicable, fundamental loneliness — it all rings true in his dusty voice. And now he’s got a band behind him every bit as pitch perfect, and Here’s to Taking It Easy is a fine debut of sorts for Phosphorescent as a band. To Willie was the preamble to this, the band’s new direction. And good as Houck was as a singer-songwriter, “band leader” is a role that suits him just as well.