Phosphorescent: Song for Zula

Photo Credit: Curtis Wayne Millard
Photo Credit: Curtis Wayne Millard

If you haven’t heard of Matthew Houck and Phosphorescent, you should probably give his music a listen. And by probably, I mean definitely. Start with “Song for Zula.”

I’ve been meaning to write this post since Phosphorescent played at the 9:30 Club last month. But I kept getting stuck — it’s difficult to capture the shimmering beauty of this song (or, for that matter, the sheer awesomeness of glittery gold cowboy boots).Phosphorescent boots

Performing at the 9:30 Club.
Performing at the 9:30 Club.

Then this NPR Music post reminded me: Analysis will never trump feeling. So, let’s talk about how this song makes us feel.

A phosphorescent material absorbs energy and slowly re-emits it in the form of light. The band is aptly named, as “Song for Zula” produces a lingering glow. Houck’s delivery is plaintive but measured, and scintillating upward shifts in the melody are anchored by the bass and drum rhythm. The overall effect is a muted radiance, like sunlight filtering through the interstices of trees.

The first 30 seconds alone are mesmerizing. Violins and synth start gently and slowly crescendo. The drum-machine reverb enters, topped by conga drums and a more assertive swirl of strings.

In counterpoint to the ethereal instrumentation, the lyrics to “Song for Zula” are rich with organic imagery and weighed down by pain. Houck sings with the slightest quaver in his voice, at once defiant and sorrowful:

You will not see me fall, nor see me struggle to stand / To be acknowledged by some touch from his gnarled hands / You see the cage, it called. I said, “Come on in.” / I will not open myself this way again.

At first listen, this might not be the song you’d play for your sweetheart this Valentine’s Day. But then again, as Milan Kundera said in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, “The heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to the earth, the more real and truthful they become.” If the beauty of love is most apparent in the willingness to embrace the dark as well as the light, then “Song for Zula” is a hypnotic homage to the elusive thing.

You can purchase Phosphorescent’s latest album, Muchacho, here.

Phosphorescent

The Head & The Heart: Another Story

Charity

The Head and the Heart was the first show I saw in D.C. In my first few months here, my homesickness made me come across to some as a snobbish New Yorker. But I didn’t (and I don’t) think New York is superior. I simply missed the feverish pace, the verticality of the concrete and steel, and the tidal waves of humanity that surrounded me with faces and stories, and made me feel less alone and more a part of a story in the making. When a new coworker (and now one of my besties) introduced me to The Head and the Heart (THATH), I found it to be the perfect new music for someone looking for home.

The Seattle folk-rock band takes the melancholy of Americana and gives it an injection of upbeat, propulsive energy with Tyler Williams’ dynamic drumming and Kenny Hensley’s bright keyboard counterpoints. The themes of their songs are not expansive, but there’s a depth and soulfulness to the music that penetrates the heart. Josiah Johnson, Jonathan Russell, and Charity Rose Thielen weave their voices together in sweet, sad harmonies about leaving home and looking for home, about friends who part ways, and about realizing that we were always already home where we feel loved.

I saw The Head and the Heart at Ram’s Head (Baltimore, MD) in March 2012 and at the 9:30 Club in June of the same year. At the time, they had just one album out. I was hooked by the delicacy of “Winter Song,” the sing-along vibrancy of “Lost In My Mind,” the foreboding keyboard intro to “Ghosts,” and the gorgeousness in the high register of Charity’s voice, almost wailing in homesickness, in “Rivers and Roads” (there’s a reason why the audience cheers when she belts out those lines).

THATH, 9:30 Club

I liked THATH so much that I was nervous about their second album–what if, after a debut that delivered song after lovely song, THATH had exhausted their creative reservoirs and what follows, disappoints? And so when “Let’s Be Still,” the band’s sophomore effort, arrived in my mailbox last month, I stared at the album photos with some trepidation before popping the CD in.

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Kodaline: Love Like This

Kodaline_5

After equivocating between summer and fall for the past few weeks, autumn weather has finally descended on D.C. As Colin Nissan puts it, “there’s a nip in the air and my house is full of mutant f*ing squash.” Decorative gourds and plaid shirts aside, I love this season because I get to listen to new releases. October got off to a good start with Kodaline’s debut album.

Since the release of “In A Perfect World” (June in Europe, October in North America), Kodaline has been dazzling crowds on both sides of the pond. I first encountered their music last spring when they opened for The Airborne Toxic Event at the 9:30 Club. At the end of the set, frontman Steve Garrigan humbly thanked the audience for listening “even though you’ve never heard of us.” Well lads, for those of us who didn’t know you then, we certainly know you and love your music now.

My note about Kodaline from May 2013 (scrawled above the Airborne guitar pick that landed at my feet): "Gotta keep an eye on them!"
My note about Kodaline from May 2013 (scrawled above the Airborne guitar pick that landed at my feet): “Gotta keep an eye on them!”

While the critics have not been as enthusiastic as the fans, my philosophy on album reviews goes something like this: “In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. . . . [But] in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so.” (Yes, I’m quoting from “Ratatouille” — because it’s brilliant.)

The Dublin-based quartet displays a versatility in their first album and an ability to craft hook after hook that the critics ought to pay closer attention to before dismissing the band’s music as mundane, post-Bono/Chris Martin alt-rock.

For example, the folk-tinged “Love Like This” opens with harmonica and mandolin and includes lovely “ooh-ooh-ooh” harmonies, broken by a spoken aside that Steve tosses off in a rakish manner, the ghost of a smile lifting the corners of his lips: “I know that love like this won’t last forever / But I, I don’t really mind, I don’t really mind at all.” I love the hush at 3:03 when the instruments drop out and Steve’s a capella delivery captures the loneliness described in the preceding verse: “It grows dark but you don’t mind / Hiding in the back streets, yeah, you’ll never notice me.” Then the full acoustic accompaniment rejoins to propel us onward to the end of the song.

“Love Like This” is perfect for fall, when my relationship with the weather is sort of like the fling described in the song. The gorgeous colors and scents of autumn will inevitably be displaced by winter, but I don’t mind that this lovely weather is only temporary. What we have is now, and as Steve has remarked about this song, “it’s kind of about relationships [that are] not really going anywhere, but you just go with it anyway.”

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David Wax Museum: Harder Before It Gets Easier

DWM

The government is open for business again! In celebration of the return to normalcy — or what passes for “normal” in these mad times — I think we all need a little David Wax Museum. Polarizing rhetoric is rending the nation, with tea-sodden reactionaries warning of the death of democracy. In response to that movement’s antagonism toward immigrants (I mean, really?), I offer the sonic syncretism that is David Wax Museum’s music, which draws from American and Mexican folk traditions to create something that is more than the sum of its parts.

A while back, I was chatting with a friend who had not heard of The Lumineers. I directed him to “Stubborn Love” and “Flowers In Your Hair,” and after giving the band a listen, he asked if I knew David Wax Museum. I didn’t. And I had been missing out on what NPR’s Bob Boilen aptly calls “pure, irresistible joy”.

Donkey jawbone, or quijada — the cool kids’ percussion instrument.

Before I launch into an exposition of the awesomeness of this band, I’ll provide a little context. I tend to react to new music in one of two ways. The songs that immediately get stuck in my head (think “Blurred Lines”) tend to lose their appeal after a few weeks. The music that takes more work at first — for instance, Alt-J’s intricate, morphing textures, or Bon Iver’s falsetto murmurings of impenetrable lyrics — ends up rewarding my effort by revealing an unfamiliar but gorgeous soundscape.

It’s not often that a band falls in the overlapping space on the Venn diagram of my short- and long-term music fixations. But David Wax Museum was both love at first listen and a love that has, so far, withstood the test of time. Initially, I was hooked by their Appalachia-meets-Veracruz rhythms and harmonies, and the accordion-pumping, jarana-strumming exuberance. But the more I listen, the more I am drawn to this rich tapestry of American folk and Mexicon son, with sprinklings of rock (the electric guitar makes an appearance in their latest album). There is an infectious joy in David Wax’s singing and Suz Slezak’s harmonies combined with fiddle-playing and quijada-rattling.

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