Shielded from a blustery Brooklyn evening by the concrete walls of his practice space, Matthew Houck wrenches open an Amstel Light using a half-moon tambourine.
He shakes off a beat-up motorcycle jacket, lifts one of the room’s eight guitars and begins to pick out a fluid melody. The other members of Phosphorescent catch on and join in, piecemeal, to Leonard Cohen’s “Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye.” Houck—who has called Cohen’s songs “secret agents” for how they grab you when you least expect it—shakes his head, croons the chorus and grins.
A hirsute Alabaman with a kind face, Houck has been the pilot light of Phosphorescent for seven years. He writes country songs in the Hank Williams sense, but first picked up guitar with an ear for Kurt Cobain—a dualism he bears proudly, and well. On 2007 breakout Pride, a haunting and transcendent coil of an album, Houck played every instrument himself; for 2009’s To Willie, a Willie Nelson tribute disc, he enlisted musicians from country outfit Virgin Forest. They’ve since become fully integrated into the Phosphorescent fold: Crazy Horse to Houck’s Young, The Band to his Dylan.
The result of their union is Phosphorescent’s latest, Here’s To Taking It Easy, which Houck says he wrote “after the Rolling Stones finally kicked in.” It’s got grooves deep enough to hide in and songs that stretch out like horizon-bound highways, an album both sunburned surfers and leather-clad bikers can enjoy. (No big surprise; Houck likes riding his huge Honda 450 chopper out to grab some Far Rockaway waves.) Laced throughout is Houck’s brand of shrugging lyrical humor. The album originally included a subtitle that appended Here’s To Taking It Easy with Tho The Jaws of This World Wish Only To Grab Hold Of Your Ass.
Four days after he and the band played Cohen at rehearsal, Houck is the musical guest at a chancy reading series in Greenwich Village. A former dominatrix demonstrates how to hog-tie a sexual slave, a novelist leads Pentecostal prayer to absolve the audience of debt, and Houck closes the night. He runs solo through some restrained Phosphorescent originals before grabbing the mic, swaggering into the crowd and harmonizing with his own looped voice. The crowd roars from their seats at candle-lit tables; his band gawks from the bar in back. It’s a raucous cover of “Suspicious Minds,” complete with Elvis Presley hip gyrations, Waylon Jennings twang, and a slow-burning howl that curls tight and spreads wide.