A Brooklyn band with a retro-pop sound, Phosphorescent's tribute to Willie Nelson, and Van Morrison's 'Astral Weeks' album rerecorded live at the Hollywood Bowl.
The Pains of Being Pure at Heart: 'The Pains of Being Pure at Heart' (Slumberland)
The Pains of Being Pure at Heart is another Brooklyn band with an unwieldy name and a penchant for swooning retro-pop hooks. The defining characteristic here is one of agility – there's plenty of mood to be found among the waves of fuzz and feedback, and more than a little jangle. "Everything With You" and "Stay Alive" are the sturdiest of the bunch, built around big, major-key choruses. "Hey Paul" dials up the distortion and piles on a few loops of noise, before stripping the whole mess back to a low growl. And purist rock fans should try "Young Adult Friction," which has the same sort of roar as a vintage Supergrass track. At a time when everyone on the New York scene is turning toward noise or overly cute balladry, it's nice to hear a band taking up residence in the space between.
Phosphorescent: 'To Willie' (Dead Oceans)
Matthew Houck's been spinning his folk symphonies under the name Phosphorescent for years now, most recently on a haunting disc called "Pride." Now he's decided to pay homage to Willie Nelson, the legendary musical pioneer, with 11 tracks of lush country rock. At his best, Houck preserves the warmth of Nelson's "Pick Up the Tempo" and the bighearted hum of "Walkin' " while dragging the tone down to a sultry murmur. It's sad music, but also comforting music – Houck's guitar, soaked in reverb, wraps around each verse, and the vocal lines linger long after the choruses have passed. For my money, "It's Not Supposed to Be That Way," as rendered in Houck's understated arrangement, has "Red Headed Stranger" beat by a mile. The only real stumble: "Permanently Lonely," which is stretched out over a synthesizer swell, making the whole thing sound horribly maudlin.
The original "Astral Weeks" was released in 1968 to a rapturous critical and popular reception; the album is still regularly cited as one of the best of the 20th century. So Van Morrison's decision to re-record the whole thing, live, over two nights last year, might have led to disaster. Luckily for the Van fan, "Live at the Hollywood Bowl" loses nothing of that famous sparkle. Things are just a little looser, and a lot rangier. The ballad "Sweet Thing" wanders repeatedly over a major-key keyboard swell, and the arrangement on "The Way Young Lovers Do" is big and airy and blurred by a speak-sing delivery that verges on a mumble. "Ballerina" plays muted at first and then gorgeously plush. Big kudos to the sound guys on this one – they've managed to pick up every hiccup, scratched string, and bass-drum thump.