The lead track on the latest album by Brooklyn indie-folk outfit Phosphorescent is called "It's Hard to be Humble (When You're From Alabama)." Matthew Houck—the man who does all the singing, writing and, until recently, playing for Phosphorescent—is a native of that state.
The title is surely intended to convey a mixture of real pride and deep irony, reflecting the dual identity of the South in general. It's a hothouse for producing larger-than-life characters, but it's a frequently benighted region glimpsed only at its most downtrodden by the rest of the country. Last Wednesday, the state made national headlines due to devastating tornadoes that killed more than 200 people. The following day, a very not-humble young man who attended college in Alabama, Cam Newton, was selected as the first overall pick in the NFL draft by the Carolina Panthers. It's the "duality of the Southern thing," another Bama boy, Patterson Hood, has put it.
Houck's own career has been a study in informing an inborn fragility and precariousness with steady confidence. Over the past year, he's greatly enhanced both the exposure and artistic assuredness of what began a decade ago as an entirely solo project of howling, lonely folk. Phosphorescent's latest effort, 2010's Here's to Taking It Easy, is an album of rich country-rock recorded with a full band in tow. It's helped Houck land the highest-profile gigs of his career—slots at this year's Coachella and Bonnaroo festivals, as well as an appearance last December on The Late Show With David Letterman.
But we can't ignore Houck's earlier releases, not only because they're terrific, but also because they're where he laid an artistic template for what has come since, despite his move toward emboldened sounds. A Hundred Times or More, Aw Come Aw Wry and especially 2007's critical breakthrough, Pride, showcased a haunting, intuitive artist using a warbling voice and eerily poetic lyricism to deliver incantatory songs that felt elusively mystical yet deeply rooted in gospel and folk forms.
Houck's vulnerability and penchant for the hypnotic persist on Here's to Taking It Easy, but the songs are musically more muscular than ever before. "I Don't Care if There's Cursing," "Los Angeles" and "It's Hard to be Humble" demonstrate an ease with a variety of '60s and '70s sounds—from outlaw country to Muscle Shoals soul—without diving into revivalism. The album peaks with "The Mermaid Parade," a gorgeous weeper about a dissolved marriage. Houck's narrator wanders through the annual event of the title, held every summer in Coney Island. He eyes the scantily clad women, but he's unable to shake thoughts of his ex. "Goddamn it, Amanda, goddamn it all," he mutters.
Yet for all the greatness he's flashed that could challenge any artist's humility, Houck has been exceedingly reverent toward his forebears. Phosphorescent recently contributed a cover of Neil Young's "Are You Ready for the Country" to a compilation put out by Mojo magazine; he has also taken to interpreting Bob Dylan's relatively obscure gem "Tomorrow is a Long Time" in concert. Most notably, Houck devoted an entire recent album to covering the songs of Willie Nelson (2009's To Willie). Word of the project allegedly made its way back to the Red Headed Stranger himself, who subsequently called up Houck to convey his enjoyment. Not sure how anyone could be too humble after that.