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.


The Airborne Toxic Event: Hell and Back

In storytelling, it’s all about the secrets. If you start with, “it was a rainy day at the beach,” I will just fall asleep. I want to know what happens at the bar when it’s 1 a.m. and you’re five pints in and telling your best friend about something that’s really happened. That’s where the good stuff is.


I like Mikel Jollett’s description of the “good stuff” and where it comes from. The lead singer of the Airborne Toxic Event is no stranger to plumbing the depths of souls and surfacing with a story — before he became a songwriter, he was a Stanford psychology major and a writer (with a short story published in McSweeney’s). Three albums in, the Airborne Toxic Event has shown what kind of magic can happen when a wordsmith starts a rock band with his drummer friend (Daren Taylor), a classically-trained violinist (Anna Bulbrook), a jazz bassist (Noah Harmon), and a guitarist (Steven Chen) who Mikel met when both lived in San Francisco. Even before delving into the songs, you get a sense of the literary cred from the name of the band — it’s out of Don DeLillo’s White Noise (and I think this is inspiration, not pretension).

Continue reading “The Airborne Toxic Event: Hell and Back”

Neutral Milk Hotel in concert

I first heard “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” on a mix CD that a high school friend made for us. I felt lucky to be in the small group that received these carefully-crafted mixes, and I will never grow tired of that Neutral Milk Hotel song. The yearning, strained quality in Jeff Magnum’s voice almost mimics the singing saws in the background, and his warbling ups and downs seem discordant but somehow capture the fleeting beauty of those autumn days when we were just a bunch of teenagers, making up plans as we drove around town, letting the music wash over us: “What a beautiful dream / That could flash on the screen / In a blink of an eye and be gone from me.”

I’ve been lucky to make new friends in D.C. who are passionate about music, even though our day jobs have nothing to do with it. Earlier this month, one of these friends attended Neutral Milk Hotel’s show in Richmond and offered this lovely, thoughtful write-up as a guest post. Enjoy.

Remember when you were younger and you first heard an album that really moved you? When you would sit in your room with your headphones on and just listen to it over and over again? Those of us whose adolescence predates the use of computers would record a single song over and over again on the same cassette – that way you could hear it six times in a row without having to hit rewind. Where does that single-minded obsession go as we get older? Are we simply too distracted and too busy to commit to an hour’s devotion to four minutes worth of guitars and drums? Or is it the case, as Daniel Levitin argues, that the extreme emotional impact of music on our adolescence is a holdover from our early childhood’s focus on learning new languages and movements?
Either way, the pull of our personal listening histories is undeniable. I first came across Neutral Milk Hotel’s “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” in the new music bin at WUSC, with a little Post-It note on the jewel case from the Music Director. Normally he’d annotate new albums including such important information as which tracks were instrumental, and which ones contained profanity (and therefore couldn’t be played over the air at most hours of the day). Occasionally he would star a track, identifying in advance what could turn out to be a hit. This Post-It was different. It just said “You Need This.”
He was right.

Continue reading “Neutral Milk Hotel in concert”

Furlough foxtrot, shutdown shimmy


Day three of the government shutdown. Downtown is a bit of a ghost town. On the bright side, restaurants are offering shutdown specials. My favorite variation: half-priced drinks for fed employees, members of Congress pay double.

Yesterday, the 9:30 Club, my favorite live music venue in Washington DC, offered a two-for-one special on tickets. That got me thinking about making a playlist for these troubled times.

I’ve been toying for a while with the idea of chronicling my time in D.C. through concerts I attend and, more generally, music that captures joyful moments and propels me through tough times. Since I’m mostly “nonessential,” this seemed like a good opportunity to start this project. Plus, some of my favorite bands have recently released or will soon release new albums: MGMT, The Head and the Heart, and the Wood Brothers, to name a few.

I was trying for some alliteration in labeling this my “shutdown shimmy” playlist. My coworker made the brilliant suggestion of a new dance, the furlough foxtrot. I’ll have to see which name sticks, but either way, Cold War Kids makes the list.

The sardonic quality of “Hang Me Up to Dry” seems fitting for this absurd political standoff. The pulsing guitar and dissonant piano chords form a eerie backdrop to the song, which opens: “Careless in our summer clothes, splashing around in the muck and the mire.” Nathan Willett is presumably singing about an awful ex, but the imagery also captures the current state of Congressional mud-slinging and finger-pointing.

This isn’t a new song, but it’s a sturdy indie rock piece that draws on a straightforward metaphor: “You’ve wrung me out too, too, too many times.” Hey, Capitol Hill — you listening? Don’t hang us out to dry.

Cold War Kids will be playing at the 9:30 Club on October 24th and 25th.