A Hundred Times or More
n 1983, a precocious young jangle-pop prince named Matthew Sweet left his birthplace of Lincoln, Nebraska for the greener college-rock pastures of Athens, Georgia. Smitten with R.E.M., Sweet hoped to ingratiate himself with his proto-indie heroes and perhaps even catch a ride on the vapor trail that Berry, Buck, Mills and Stipe left behind in their rise to arena-sized stardom. In less than three years, Sweet joined Lynda Stipe’s band, Oh-OK, spun that off into his own project, Buzz of Delight, and then split for the bright lights of NYC after Columbia Records offered him a contract in 1985 after listening to his Don Dixon-produced solo demo.
Almost two decades later, another preternaturally gifted Matthew, this one surnamed Houck, ventured to that land of indie-rock milk and honey with his one-man band, Phosphorescent, and while his intentions seem to be less facile than the opportunistic Sweet, it’s clear that Houck is chasing his own Athenian ghost, the spectre of Neutral Milk Hotel’s MIA mastermind, Jeff Mangum.
Mangum himself might have fallen off the face of the Earth, but the name of his seminal art-folkie act has been bandied about quite a bit of late, owing to the less-than-incidental similarities between Neutral Milk Hotel and current esoterics du jour, The Decemberists.
However, while The Decemberists invite NMH comparisons because of their endearing affectedness and penchant for baroque lyricism, Houck is the spiritual heir to Mangum’s cracked, open-throated tenor and occasional fits of South-haunted possession. In short, The Decemberists are “King of Carrot Flowers, Pt. 1,” while Phosphorescent is “King of Carrot Flowers, Pts. 2 and 3,” the one where Mangum hollers “I love you, Jesus Christ” with such theatrical conviction that it effectively nullifies the undercurrent of cynicism you would expect from a guy who later claims “I will float until I learn how to swim inside my mother/In a garbage bin.”
Now, throw in the fact that another one of Houck’s kissing cousins is Conor Oberst, who has recorded extensively in Athens (not to mention pilfered a good deal of the town’s artistic talent for his own indie-rock monolith in Omaha), and it’s obvious that Houck’s decision to relocate was a good one if he planned to put himself in direct lineage to a fruitful cracked-genius tradition, but not so good if he didn’t want to have his Phosphorescent debut held up next to such indie-folk luminaries.
Houck shouldn’t have worried, however, because A Hundred Times or More stands shoulder to shoulder with much of the NMH and Bright Eyes back catalogues, and while it’s true that Houck’s influences are never too far from the forefront, he nonetheless manages to carve out a distinctive niche for himself in a landscape that’s seen more than a few one-of-a-kinds.
Like his predecessors, Houck traffics in the kind of ragged, fractured folk that often takes its own sweet time to develop, and, as such, A Hundred Times or More requires both a patient ear and a sense of the bigger picture. Houck shows his hand from the start with “Salt And Blues,” a slowcore stunner that opens the album with all the elements in place: vibrato-rich guitar, blanketed organ, endless reams of feedback and faraway noise and Houck’s primal, plaintive voice. It’s a limited palette for sure, but that’s all Houck needs to create some of the most evocative music you’ll hear all year.
In terms of structure, Houck again takes a page from Conor Oberst’s book of ragtag, ramshackle indie-rock. Houck allows the music to build a slow head of steam on “Salt and Blues,” “Where to Strip,” and “How Far We All Come Away,” then screams off all the sonic debris with such religious conviction that even an uncertain plea like “ain’t you tired?” or “please, I’ve waited” will no doubt make its fair share of stone-cold believers. Better still, Houck is far more guileless than that bedheaded Midwestern wunderkind and current Winona-shagger-of-the-month, and so his temper tantrums come off more as genuine fits of apoplectic fervor rather than well-rehearsed bits of deliberate catharsis.
Hypnotic repetition and haunting lyrical ephemera are Houck’s most reliable go-to tricks, the former a means to lull you into his web, the latter a reward for letting yourself get stuck, as fragmentary images of “people making bird sounds” and “topless girls with pretty messy hair” float past in the reverent benediction of “Remain,” while “the dress that you bled in” sets off all kinds of Freudian bells and whistles in the punchdrunk call-and-response of “Last of the Hand-Me-Downs.”
In the end, that’s the essential paradox of A Hundred Times or More: it sounds at times like little more than an embryonic sketch of half-formed ideas, and yet somehow emerges as a self-contained example of insular, whole-cloth genius and sustained artistic achievement.
It’s safe to come out now, Mangum, the pressure’s off. We’ve found an heir to your throne, in your own backyard no less.
Reviewed by: Josh Love
Reviewed on: 2003-10-07