Houston-based listenlisten will release their second full-length album, Dog, on December 4 in vinyl and digital formats only. The southward band has lately been getting cozier with our own musical elements and gathering more Dallas fans with each North Texas visit. Practiced, tenebrous, and purposed, listenlisten makes music for the darkly contemplative with appreciative, discerning ears.
I first encountered listenlisten at City Tavern. On the venue’s corner stage, they held perfect command over their songs. It was an arresting performance, one that demonstrated clearly that listenlisten believed every word and note they played, the true measure of a good band. If listenlisten’s commitment was in doubt, a moment near the show’s end confirmed it. Trumpeter/guitarist Shane Patrick held the bell of his brass instrument high over his strapped guitar and strained to maintain a pinnacle note even as he fell backward, every vital corpuscle of blood draining from his brain to buttress his embouchure. He fell backward into the wall and shortly recovered – slightly embarrassed, his band-mates reported. For the audience, however, it was a stunning praxis that epitomized listenlisten’s marriage to songcraft.
Listenlisten’s newest album bears the truncated title of Dog. It is paced, thoughtful, and cynical. In the trumpet heralds, you can envision the sarcastic homecoming of wounded soldiers in the horn notes. In childlike banjo plucks, despair is tapped out like an impatient fingertip on the desk. A jovial guitar arpeggio is juxtaposed with the accusing, dissident knocks of a piano. Some songs tick like a metronome or a grandfather clock. You can almost feel the weightiness of time in their gait.
Dog is Kafkaesque. Open it, and you will find a trunk full of purposeless keys and misleading doors, an infirmary where communication is futile. You will find something of the South in its forlorn banjo, but also something from rock ‘n’ roll’s grandiose imagination trying to force itself beyond a limitation.
The second and last time I saw listenlisten play in Dallas, I imagined singer Ben Godfrey might have passed for a mortician in his black tuxedo shirt, pale visage setting off a stark moustache. I thought I picked up on a consistent theme of mortality, and not just lyrically. The music moves with the heavy, lurch-step of one tasked with a corner’s worth of a casket-load. I asked Ben later if he was death-obsessed, and he immediately thought I had overdone it, bound him in an uncomfortable impression. But he did admit death had been on his mind, could not help but be on any thinking mind. Still, Godfrey rightly intimates that there is much more to his work (and life), and death alone would mischaracterize the wider theme of Dog.
On Dog, death is on the mind because life is on the mind and maybe trapped in the mind, ricocheting about like a pinball. It might be uncharitable to call Dog a tribute to neurosis, but it is definitely an album for the ruminating man, the pensive woman. Dog is existential. It is where the air is more than gas: a portent. It lives where fog is more than a mist: an asphyxiate. But it is also existential in its dogged transcendentalism. Listenlisten almost begs you in song to join them in their crawl out of the gloom.
Like most albums committed to tape by very good bands, Dog lacks the personal impact of listenlisten’s live performance and I could more readily recommend the latter. It might require a drive to Houston, but it is the season for it. Or you might just as easily catch them in Dallas. Listenlisten has developed a cordial relationship with our city’s own folk-country clan. Meanwhile, Dog, as a recording, is a fair approximation of listenlisten’s brilliant musical contention with the darker things in life. Certainly, they are the coldest thing I have ever felt emanate from the Gulf Coast.