Every Monday through Friday, we deliver a different song as part of our Song of the Day podcast subscription. This podcast features exclusive KEXP in-studio performances, unreleased songs and recordings from independent artists that our DJs think you should hear. Each and every Friday we deliver songs by local artists. Today’s selection is “It’s Hard to Be Humble (When You’re from Alabama)” from Phosphorescent from the 2010 album Here’s To Taking It Easy on Dead Oceans.
One of the real joys of my life is discovering a song that will stay with me forever. I live for that feeling -– the one that comes after the shrink wrap is off and the needle has been blown free of its fuzz, when you are stopped dead in your tracks by a melody that just walls the world out. Suddenly you need nothing but the starkly strummed notes of a song. This happened to me at the third groove of a little yellow record called Pride. “Wolves,“ from Matthew Houck’s fourth album as Phosphorescent, is an arresting depiction of spiraling thought and the weight of loneliness. Sang to the only woman that might still listen, the growing desperation in Houck’s surrounded vocal is impossible to ignore. When she sends me out on that burning boat -- well, I want this one with me. Yeah, it’s that goddamn good.
As you might imagine, this song (and the rest of the record, especially “Cocaine Lights”) made me an instant fan. In the years following Pride’s release, Houck’s material continued down a path of transformation experienced by many a brilliant singer/songwriter. With growth and success come artistic maturity, confidence and a desire to break new ground. Last year’s release of the Willie Nelson cover album, To Willie, marked a turning point for Phosphorescent, as he moved away from the overtly solitary nature of his previous work and made the band more of a... you know, a band.
More robust than his previous work, the traditionally country material recorded for To Willie necessitated more players and in turn formed a creative bridge to his next LP of original work (and third for Dead Oceans), Here’s to Taking It Easy. On the opening track, “It’s Hard to Be Humble (When You’re from Alabama),” Phosphorescent the band slaps us upside the head with the kind of road-weary country anthem written amongst empty beer cans and roadside piss breaks. The difference of course is that this time around Houck is crossing streams with a busload of friends. And while the dim nightlight of one man’s homesick soul still glows at the floorboards, the free and easy collaborative aspect of music making is now at the forefront of our experience. In many ways, “It’s Hard to Be Humble” is the open-armed counterpart to the introspection of “Wolves.” Its triumphant nature seems to bring down the walls that separate us from the rest of the world. And while it’s admittedly more difficult for me to see, there is a beauty in this that also cannot be ignored.
Placed side-by-side, Here’s to Taking it Easy and Pride are certainly different destinations -- separated by time and space –- and soon enough Phosphorescent will be on to the next stop; each new album a causeway to higher and higher ground with the intimate waters of Houck’s past work forever flowing underfoot.
Next month, Phosphorescent embark on a national tour, which will eventually take them to the Crocodile Cafe on July 31. Before that, Matthew Houck will be at the Cutting Room Studios in NYC performing LIVE on KEXP on June 22.
For now, here’s a brief live session recorded at Belgian radio station Studio Brussels: