Aw Come Aw Wry
w Come Aw Wry is not a friendly record. It is not a handshake and a pat on the back. There’s a bruised quality that keeps you at bay during the first few listens. The languid pacing almost begs caution, hinting at something sinister that may or may not involve conscious choices. If there is any question as to whether a pop song can be complex, that it can pack subtext and mystery into four and a half minutes, than Aw Come Aw Wry answers that question solidly in the affirmative.
Phosphorescent is headed by reformed folkie Matthew Houck. Houck’s musical roots are humble. He grew up in Alabama, dropped out of college and went busking from New Orleans to California where he was eventually discovered by a UK booking agent. That agent probably thought he’d discovered another Dylan when he booked Houck for a tour of the UK. But upon his return Houck went the route of the group by starting Phosphorescent. Despite these decidedly lo-fi acoustic beginnings Phosphorescent shares no resemblance to the neo-folk movement, but don’t let Houck’s Alabama upbringing shove Phosphorescent into the alt.country slot either. The songs on Aw Come Aw Wry contain elements of either genre, but the end result is one that goes out of its way to insult both.
Aw Come Aw Wry is built as much upon a feeling as it is upon a selection of instruments. That feeling, as abstract as that word is in this context, comes from Houck’s introspective lyrics, his Southern drawl, the claustrophobic arrangements of the songs, and the band’s heavy use of horns to push their melodies forward. The use of horns in particular gives the songs the quality of a celebratory funeral dirge, the kind you might play if you’re worst enemy passed away in a horrible accident involving rampant kudzu growth.
Album opener “Not A Heel” warbles into view on Houck’s unsteady voice and a quiet piano line. As with many of the songs on Aw Come Aw Wry certain familiar elements that should mark the songs as alt.country, like a weepy pedal steel or a quiet acoustic strum, get slowly superceded by less familiar instruments like a wash of subtle synths or a blast of Stax/Volt worthy horns. Obvious comparisons point towards Will Oldham or Sparklehorse, but in listening to a song like the slow burning “Joe Tex, These Taming Blues” with its explosive horns or “I Am A Full Grown Man (I Will Lay In The Grass)” with its hum of violin, herky jerky tempo changes, and synthed up outro, it’s obvious that Phosphorescent is mining a territory uniquely their own.
The only problem with Aw Come Aw Wry is Houck’s tendency towards over indulgence. “Endless Pt. 2”’s nearly four and a half minutes of choral chanting quickly overstays its welcome and album closer “Nowhere Road, Georgia, February 21st, 2005” appears to be a recording of exactly that. It may seem clever to record the simple sounds of a southern thruway for the album’s final 19 minutes (!) but there’s little satisfaction for the listener. Perhaps Houck thought we needed a few minutes reprieve after the tension and beauty of the preceding eleven songs, but it stretches the patience of even the most reverent listener.
If this review has sounded a bit unanchored or, perhaps at best, laboring towards some kind of apt metaphor for something as ethereal as how an album “feels,” it’s because that’s how Aw Come Aw Wry attaches itself to you. You may not like it on the first listen but you’ll undoubtedly start loving it on the twelfth. The whole thing is about melancholy; but a melancholy fueled by resignation—not self-pity. Until you become convinced of this through repeated listening the affair seems labored. When you realize how honest Houck is being, it all makes beautiful sense.
Reviewed by: Peter Funk
Reviewed on: 2005-07-19