No stranger to ragged, defeatist country/folk (Phosphorescent's previous album, 2007's Pride, was a narcotic, wintry wonder), Matthew Houck and friends sound right at home on To Willie, a covers LP of 11 Willie Nelson favorites and rarities.
Houck's forthright, mundane voice saps some of the self-effacing wit from Nelson's soul-searching travelogues, but otherwise he milks his limited range for all it's worth: the multi-tracked refrain of "Reasons To Quit" bears the dignity and heft of gospel, and he's parched and cracked on the looser "I Gotta Get Drunk." His band likewise make the most of a familiar bag of tricks. Two fluttery Spanish guitars noodle through the pregnant pauses of "It's Not Supposed To Be That Way," and a saloon piano hides in the shadows of full-band treatments like "Pick Up the Tempo." (Most auspiciously, a liquidy synth backdrop out of "In the Air Tonight"–era Phil Collins makes a dreamy haze of Nelson's hammy "Permanently Lonely.")
To Willie could have a lost ballad and a roadhouse jam for variety's sake, but Houck's thoughtful curating makes it more than a fans-only stopgap.