Live: Phosphorescent at Union Hall [2.28.08]


Phosphorescent play tonight at the Kimmel Center, NYU with the National. And then tomorrow, Friday, February 29 at the Mercury Lounge with the Bowerbirds.

Phosphorescent at the Cake Shop last November. Photo by Cami D

Union Hall
February 27, 2008

When reading this profile of Phosphorescent’s principle songwriter Matthew Houck, one gets the sense he’s not all there. Maybe it’s an act. Maybe it’s not. Maybe Houck is a brilliant schuckster, one who knows how to play on our deepest attachments to sentimentality and how to make certain sounds when paired with certain words sound brilliant. Or maybe it’s not an act; he’s really a flighty guy livin’ in a flighty little world, where stringing consecutive sentences and thoughts together are as much of a chore as, say, cleaning the bathtub.

It’s still up in the air.

I bet it’s hard to get rent out of him—not because he doesn’t want to pay or freeload—just because he’s learning how to whittle or something, and “forgot.” Yet if he’s slightly aloof when he’s forced to talk about his music, he makes up for on stage. These singer-songwriter folky types, they can be a bit wishy-washy from time to time. Unforgiving in pursuit of onstage solitude. (See opening band Bowerbirds, for a “how to” on wish-washing).

But for Houck and the Phosphorescent crew, they’re developing as a live act that’s something much more complimentary to them as musicians who play sensitive dude type stuff. Houck is a bit of a bad-ass. They’re comfortable in making a bunch of incoherent noise, pianos mashing with random guitar chords, and drum beats as the way to start the show, then slowly oozing into what seemed to be a forever long version of “My Dove, My Lamb”—arguably the pinnacle of recently released Pride. Houck takes you on a journey, where he plays with his delivery, while speeding up the tempo a bit here and there, over the course of ten minutes.

Houck rarely cracks a smile, he rarely will make eye contact with audience members. He looks out over their heads, concentrating; I’m assuming he’s making sure that his lines are strung together in a coherent fashion. Acknowledging us, becoming aware of us, could throw all that into jeopardy.

And when he really gets down to business, he turns his back on us, literally. The end of “Full Grown Man” reveals Houck deadpanning the line “into the grass” repeatedly, ever sure that what he’s saying isn’t up for grabs, that there isn’t any doubt. He’s facing his drummer, and it’s unclear at what points make him want to do this. The clincher, as well as the closer, was “Cocaine Lights.” Sounding much more expansive with a full band, Houck slowly builds over five, seven, maybe nine minutes- again, giving a fuller, less spacey sounding version than his record gives off, suggesting that he himself doesn’t want to stagnate. Suggesting he wants to captivate us, to give us reason to keep paying attention. Don’t leave me, like you left Bowerbirds.

Or maybe they’re just a bit flighty. It’s still up in the air.