***1/2 (out of four)
Country music generally remains too unhip of a reference point for the indie music world to touch with much seriousness. So when Brooklyn musician Matthew Houck, a.k.a. Phosphorescent, made an album of Willie Nelson covers about four years ago, it seemed like a curiosity, the kind of thing that would come out of a couple of weekends of obsessing over your dad's vinyl collection. In the time since, however, Houck has proven his commitment to the genre, especially in its classic, well-trod Johnny Cash vein, while continuing to pass as someone comfortable at a Sufjan Stevens concert.
On his fourth album, “Muchacho,” Houck does not feel like a tourist but rather a guide, showing fans of, say, Bon Iver--whose layered falsetto is closely echoed in the album's spiritual intro and outro, or David Byrne, whose taut strings and horns reverberate throughout--how comfortable a little slide guitar and harmonica can feel alongside these sounds. It's his most realized work to date, a comfortable, intimate album that acknowledges that heartbreak and desperation are at home on the sidewalks in front of city dive bars as well as on dark country roads. It feels simultaneously like music that fills a house and haunts it.
That effect could be the product of consistently reverb-drenched vocals, which add distance to weary-heart highlights like “Muchacho's Tune” while animating the celestial, My Morning Jacket-like howls of “The Quotidian Beasts.” It could be the result of the swelling strings on songs like the gorgeous, “Ring of Fire”-referencing “Song for Zula” or a side effect of rollicking Neil Young guitars, as on “Ride On/Right On.”
Generous, familiar and yet surprisingly inventive, the country inflections of “Muchacho” come across like a reunion with an old friend, reminding you just how brilliant they always were.
Kyle Kramer is a RedEye special contributor. @redeyechimusic
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