Review: ‘Muchacho’ is an excellent, moody slow-burn

Ryan Morris

Editor’s Note: The following reflects the opinions of the author.

“Muchacho” is Phosphorescent’s sixth full-length album and fourth on the excellent independent label Dead Oceans.

Matthew Houck, the songwriter behind the Phosphorescent project, wrote much of the album after a stressful tour for his 2010 record “Here’s To Taking It Easy.”

At that point, Houck was unsure if he wanted to make another Phosphorescent record, but something clicked when he spent some time in Mexico and checked out of his daily routine.

The result is a nuanced, beautifully constructed album that stands as a definitive artistic work from Houck.

“Muchacho” breaks free of the “alt-country” genre typical of Phosphorescent albums, synthesizing elements of indie folk, electronica and beer-soaked classic rock into a cohesive whole.

Engineered by John Agnello, whose credits include Kurt Vile, Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr., the album has a warm, lived-in sound, incorporating subtle electronics as easily as barroom piano and tasteful horn arrangements.

A sort of sunny ambience is explored right off the bat with synthesizer-led “Sun, Arise!” a palette-cleansing opener much like its cousin and closing number “Sun’s Arising.”

In between these bookending pieces, Houck explores a variety of moods, though the arrangements are always lush and inviting.

Lyrically, however, “Muchacho” is quite dark, calling to mind the lonely character studies of The National as much as the road-trip tales of redemption penned by the recently deceased Jason Molina.

The lyrics here feel personal and confessional, transcending cliché with smart, vivid imagery and impressive narrative scope.

Musically, Houck rarely rocks out, choosing instead to let his songs meander through dreamy vamps. Much of “Muchacho” is a slow burn as a result, and though some of the numbers tend to drift, the highlights here are tremendous.

The two long-form songs, the six-minute “Song for Zula” and the epic “Quotidian Beasts” are simply fantastic, both great examples of the power Houck’s intense poetry has when backed by his rich, widescreen music.

Some of “Muchacho” blends together and few moments are as distinctive as “Zula” or “Beasts,” but as a mood album, it’s excellent.

Ending optimistically, “Muchacho” points to a very bright future for the Phosphorescent project.

While a little more focus might benefit his albums in the long run, Houck’s keen ear for atmosphere is just as rewarding in the long run.

Rating: Three out of four stars.

Story: COLIN MOORE, A&E Reporter