Listener Project - Return to Struggleville
Record Label: None
Release Date: January 14, 2008
The package the new Listener Project album was bound with twine and wrapped in what seemed to the same type of brown paper grocery store bags are made from. Being the impatient bloke that I am, I didn’t bother to untie the knot; instead I broke the twine and tore the paper off to find a white box. Printed on this box was the figure of a man. He was dressed in a suit and throwing what seemed to be knives into the air. Befuddled, I opened the box. Inside, I found a long steak knife, a floppy disc, a CD, a DVD, a small, black address book, substitute cassette tape, scotch tape, a certificate of achievement (addressed to me), a pencil, and a letter thanking me for accepting the “free deluxe office set.” Needless to say, I was a bit bewildered. However, after examining all the items and carefully reading the cover letter that came with the box set, I came to the conclusion that Return to Struggleville is an album chronicling the life of a traveling knife salesman (as the image on the box benevolently suggests). “Let’s hope the album is as interesting as the press kit,” I thought.
I was first exposed to Listener Project when they were known as solely “The Listener.” Now with a revamped name and project (no pun intended), Listener Project reinstate themselves with Return to Struggleville.
Much like their previous effort Whispermoon, Return to Struggleville is strongly influenced by the spoken word stylings of bands such as mewithoutYou. However, on their newest release, Listener Project perfect their musings with additional conversational elements; the opening track “Death by Shotgun” captures the ethos of their Arkansas southern home. Indeed, it’s the type of song you’d expect to find being sung if you stumbled upon a man sitting on the front porch of his home deep in the southern bayou. “Ozark Empire, or a Snake Oil Salesman Comes to Your Town” is a hip-hop leaning, minimalist track focused around a raw beat and handclaps. “What Would You Do if I'm Not What I'm Supposed to Be, Because I'm Not” incorporates stirring percussion in their rendition of Joe Cocker’s “With a little Help from My Friends,” while “Officer You Have the Wrong Man, I Am Not that Man,” contains sequins of knives rubbing together. Although some elements may be more simplistic and subtle than others, these details jazz up the arrangements and continue to bolster the band’s slight edge of originality.
Although half of the album tends to fall in the more upbeat spectrum, the other half (as tacky as it sounds) is a heartfelt decent into the heart of lead vocalist Dan Smith. Employing palliative acoustic guitar over talk-style vocals, Smith’s musings show an almost desperate honesty (“It's Time for Drastic Measures, They're Not Taking You Seriously,” “The Music That Angels Do”). These songs could have been cheesy, but fortunately Listener Project don't cross the fine line of the overtly clichéd. However, some songs fall short of the band’s potential, such as “My Five Year Plan” and I Have Nothing but Attention When I Scream,” which are both characterless and passable.
Listening to Listener Project isn’t like listening to regular music; the band is no stranger to this either - their tagline on myspace reads "introducing talk music is hard work." Fortunately, the band has originality on its side. Although at times I feel like I’m listening to mewithoutYou, the band still retains an unparalleled earnest; listening to Return to Stuggleville is truly an experience. At times I feel myself swaying to the groove and at other times swooning to the rhythm of the guitar. If there is one thing that is promising about this band, it is their ability to transfer true emotion through the listener’s headphones and straight to the heart, a characteristic that is teetering on the edge of extinction in today’s scene. If anything, however, the steak knife turned out to be a darn good letter opener.