atthew Houck has always played to the Hallelujah pitch of his native South. Midway through the recording of his third album, Pride, the Alabama-born Houck moved from Brooklyn back home a ways to Athens, Georgia. Though it’s always hard to attach any significance to these shifts in base, and probably foolish, Pride does have a bit more road-beat heft to it. After rounding out his band with enough people to swell his live-show to fourteen or fifteen members, he recruited friends—including Jana Hunter, Ray Raposa, Liz Durrett, and Dirty Projectors’ Dave Longstreth, who’s credited with playing the ‘clacks’ here—mainly for the choir this time. Houck himself played every instrument on what is a far more restrained album for him, at least instrumentally. Gone for the most part are the big, horn-fueled jamborees of 2005’s Aw Come Aw Wry. Pride is instead a choral smear of a record—with simple acoustic backdrops, deep-forest drum circles, and, sure, maybe a few of them epic guitarscapes (just check the progression on “Wolves”). But the power of these hymns is in how many bent and wounded lines you find in their simplest patterns; he creates stark, gothic feversongs from what sounds like a field-wide collection of voices and moanings. In that enormity, they almost seem to play out in the timelessness and heat of illness, taking on the heavy-lidded, hallucinatory sensation of such times.
In plain fact, never before has Houck seemed so ready to take front-stage on his own. Aw come Aw Wry was an album of singular moods and settings, offset by too many of what might pass for the indie version of the hip-hop skit—repetitive returns to a thematic in-joke of sorts, in this case the three different takes on “Aw Come Aw Wry.” Of course, some might say there’s still too single a tone in the throaty, sometimes overwhelming emotionality of Pride, something bound to form a criticism for many. It’s a matter, however, of just how immersive those moods and settings are. Aw Come Aw Wry had more passing to its tide; Pride is a breathless dive under autumn waters, both invigorating and bound to need a loved one’s hot rubbing of the limbs, their feeding of a fire. Its parts complement each other in sum, as though one gone would leave the others speechless.
Opener, “A Picture of Our Torn Up Praise” mines the bleary hungover feel of the Animal Collective, with a swaying, blissful pull beneath its tom-tom beat, acoustics, and rattling sounds. “Be Dark Night” sounds like the Beach Boys trading sweet California happy for blacktop horse, its tiring choir pointing out the bright spots above over a stumblin’, uneven drum roll. They trade in the natural, swooning language of the dark Southern epic, but with enough character and comforting solemnity to sidestep the thrice-Xeroxed feel of so much modern gothic Americana.
Both “At Death, A Proclamation” and “The Waves At Night” see Houck adopting this same faded-glory tone for more brokeneck purposes. His Confederate woe and commiseration in past upheavals within these songs are so affectingly earthy it’s hard to believe dude spent so much time on Brooklyn cement. The flickering organs and slow-picked acoustics of Houck’s long-form creations, meanwhile—both “My Dove, My Lamb” and “Cocaine Nights,” the latter with an extended chorus of yelps and howling giddy force to guide her down—color Houck’s Kristofferson-like tales of burnt love in dying-sun shades, his speech as cracked and river-dry as the man’s himself but in the sifting, shaky nine-plus minutes he never cut.
But even as accustomed as you become to Houck’s fat-bellied melodies throughout Pride, “Wolves”’ house-a-fire mood will warm many a coming November night. After opening with just ukulele and Houck’s chapped voice, an organ lays out the horizon-line for its deadfoot waltz before that bellow of guitars I mentioned before sweeps the stillness away. Like so much of Pride, “Wolves” perfects the Irish-wake celebration—raise-a-pint and pick-a-fiddle in the presence of death and windy, grey-black things. It’s a record certain to provide an instant’s getaway, sure—from your desk or your deadlocked car at the hour o’ five. But more simply, it’s one of 2007’s most knee-bucklingly beautiful records.