In 1975 Willie Nelson released To Lefty, From Willie, 10 songs in which Nelson pays tribute to Lefty Frizell, picking 10 of his favorite songs and reinterpreting them in his own unique way. Well now, with To Willie, Matthew Houck aka Phosphorescent returns the favour, with 11 Willie Nelson songs that have been transformed like only Houck can.
Following on from 2007's breakthrough and utterly beguiling Pride, Houck follows a relatively straightforward path with these songs. Pride was unrelenting in both mood and length with many songs passing the six minute mark. It was definitely an album dedicated to mood and would expand from its claustrophobic cage of fear and paranoia to absolute bliss and euphoria. To Willie is much more upbeat and follows the regular song format. That being said it's simply dripping with delicate beauty and fragile devotion.
Houck's live renditions of many of Pride's greatest songs were much more fleshed out and rounded. To Willie seems to be the result of those live experiments. They emerge with a new confidence and don't sound like cover versions in the slightest. They sound lived in and weathered and their gentle harmonies and tales of love are all delivered with Houck's gruff, creaking voice. This record flows with a warmth that rarely showed its face on Pride's hollow and ghostly recordings. Songs like Reasons To Quit and I Gotta Get Drunk are full of a soulful groove that one would not associate with this songwriter. The overall tempo of this record is an instant surprise but Houck's hungover vocals lace it with a narcotic lethargy that unites it perfectly with his previous work. Can I Sleep In Your Arms breathes the vast chords of gathered harmonies that haunted Pride and Heartaches Of A Fool transforms Nelsons original into a cavernous and heart-wrenching moment of arresting beauty.
To Willie is quite a departure for Houck, but showcases an ability to adapt another artists material to his utterly unique vision. His work groans with an effortless power and that is what makes this recording both a loving and honest tribute to a much revered legend and a confident, gripping and beautiful piece of new work by a talent to keep a firm eye on.