Review Summary: What do you get when you throw southern, indie and a dash of hip hop in a blender?
Listener is really something special. They're one of those groups you really need to have an open mind in order to really appreciate.
That or you just need to enjoy listening to a mustachioed man with a gruff, twitchy voice rant poetic words over some nice indie rock.
A bit like Aaron Weiss of mewithoutYou...but with more facial hair.
Listener's <i>Return to Struggleville</i> is the groups first real step towards defining themselves as what eccentric front-man, Dan Smith likes to call "talk music". Listener had actually been around for quite some time before this release, only with a much different sound. Dan came straight out of the Christian hip hop group known as Deepspace5 and since has released a few more hip hop albums under the name "Listener". Since he's joined with Christin Nelson however he's gone more the route of indie rock and it's treated him quite well.
<i>Return to Struggleville</i>, being their first step into this new world of "talk music", still retains some of that hip-hop influence yet brings in a whole new world of sounds...both instrumentally and vocally.
The album opens with <i>Death By Shotgun</i>, beginning with the sound of insects you'd usually hear hanging out by the tall grass on a hot summer day and some lightly played acoustic. Suddenly the song explodes into some heavy percussion with what one can only assume is their signature washing machine percussion (found later on in the album as well), and some very southern influenced slide guitar. Without any preconceived notions of what you were going into, you'd almost expect some deep southern drawl but instead what you get is Dan Smith's loud babbling. For the rest of the song Dan shouts out a story of a man who's lost his job and contemplates suicide.
After the aggressive intro the next few tracks take it down a notch and show a more sensitive, indie side on the songs <i>A Song From a Knife Salesman to His Wife on Their Wedding Day</i>, <i>It's Time for Drastic Measures, They're Not Taking You Seriously</i>, <i>The Music That the Angles Do</i> and <i>My Five Year Plan</i>. The <i>It's Time for Drastic Measures</i> in particular shows some of the largest range of emotion in all of Listener's music, staring out soft and showing his hip-hop side heavily, the chorus sound exhausted and resigned, and the following verses continuing to build and build in intensity.
The album picks up again on <i>What Would You Do if I'm Not What I'm Supposed to Be, Because I'm Not</i> (quite a mouthful), bringing back the aggression only to tone it down on the next track and bring it back up for one of the album's highlights.
<i>Ozark Empire, Or A Snake Oil Salesman Comes to Your Town</i> is one of the most interesting tracks here. Instrumentally all there really is (aside from a small bit of additional percussion) is Chris beating the tar out of a washing machine. It makes for a strange effect as Dan explodes with some of his coarsest and intense vocal performances yet with one of most bizarrely catchy choruses on the album. "Have you got a headache, cold or aneurism/Working on a heart attack with bad vision/Back hurts, can't breathe right, afraid to fall/Arthritis, hemorrhoids, high cholesterol..."
The last three tracks seem a bit underwhelming after the previous (particularly <i>When No One Else Will Be Your Friend I Will Do the Job</i>, quite possibly the weakest track they have), but the album closes quite strongly with the ever-powerful <i>Officer You Have the Wrong Man, I Am Not That Man</i>. Over some hard hitting power chords drums, Dan relays a story from the perspective of an alcoholic husband who attacked his wife only to find himself with a knife in his chest. Adding to the music, you can even hear the sound of a sharpening knife. Between the heavy hitting music, knife sounds and Dan's cutting words, you can almost feel the blade being thrust into you and the rush of emotion the man must feel as Dan spouts lines like "Honestly it was probably my fault because I was just trying to scare her/But before I knew it she put a knife in my ribs/So far in that I couldn't even blink" and "I can't believe that I'm dying on my floor/What's gonna happen to my kids?/Tell them that mommy loved them, and daddy did more..."
<i>Return to Struggleville</i> isn't perfect however, as very few albums are. Dan's voice is a little hard to take for one and can become grating if you plan on listening to entire album at once. Though his voice on this album is much more melodic and listenable in comparison to their follow-up, <i>Wooden Heart</i>.
Also we have those couple of weak tracks, namely <i>When No One Else Will Be Your Friend I Will Do the Job</i>, which emotionally is awfully boring and lyrically almost made me laugh at it rather than take it seriously.
All in all, Listener's <i>Return to Struggleville</i> is a very interesting experience and an emotional roller coaster, especially in it's deep, though-provoking lyrics and strange vocal delivery. It's definitely something to check out, especially if you're looking for something unique.
It's Time for Drastic Measure, They're Not Taking You Seriously
Ozark Empire, Or a Snake Oil Salesman Comes to Your Town
Officer You Have the Wrong Man, I Am Not That Man