listenlisten, Hymns From Rhodesia

listenlisten, Hymns From Rhodesia

It’d be beyond easy to keep referring to listenlisten as “old-timey” in terms of their sound, but the more I hear, the more of a disservice that too-easy tag seems to me to be to this band. “Old-timey” feels like it connotes a fakeness, a sort of play-acting going on, like SCA dorks at RenFest bashing at one another with padded swords before going home to cable TV and World of Warcraft.

There’s none of that here. Rather, listenlisten evoke the weight of ages past in their gloomy, waltz-y, folk-y music, dragging the listener backwards and sideways to a time that maybe their grandfathers knew but which is somehow different, somehow unique in its own right. They sound like they don’t meander off to watch reality TV when they finish playing, but instead pack everything up and head back out to a remote cabin in the woods where they can play ’til the wee hours of the morning undisturbed. They step past the pitfalls of shallow revivalism to grab hold of a feeling that itself sounds, well, old.

And bleak. As befits an album that draws its title from a divided, bloodied ex-colonial state now consigned to the dustbin of history, listenlisten offer very little in the way of hope, from the swooning, waltz-y “Funeral Dirge; Burial Service” all the way through to the revitalized new take on “Watchman” (from their self-titled EP). The message of Hymns is less to praise but to warn, warn that the world is a cold, cruel place from which there’s only one avenue of escape.

There’s an absolute fatalism here, a knowledge that death comes for everyone and could well be right around the corner. The cyclical nature of life and death is captured wonderfully in “On A Rope,” a forlorn, resigned backwoods elegy that steps smoothly from the umbilical cord to the noose without much to show in-between. It starts with brutally minimal, somber vocals and guitars, then turns into a stomping, almost defiant hoedown before winding back down to the final moment before the inevitable end. Then there’s the polka-ish reel of “A Little,” sung from the viewpoint of a bomber pilot dropping firebombs on an unnamed city (Dresden, maybe? or some more recent horror, given the sidewise reference to a “piece of plastic with a magnetic strip”), who initially plays off the utter awfulness of what he’s done but seems ready to eat his gun by the song’s end.

A welcome bit of warmth here is “Safe Home, Safe Home In Port!,” a delicately joyful ode to the relief of coming in from the sea, hale and whole. The whole track is an understated gem, all quiet, gentle rhythms, plaintive/cracked vocals, fingerpicked guitars, and horns. There’s also the aforementioned “Watchman,” which hints at the uncertainty of the night itself but feels oddly comforting. At the album’s end, listenlisten bring things back up a bit, too, with “Watchman, Tell Me” parts 1 and 2, which bear little resemblance to “Watchman” but instead turn out to be sweetly poignant, countrified Appalachian folk.

Otherwise, Hymns is dark and murky and foreboding, sometimes a bit angry (as on the crashing, less-melancholy “Whoever Will”) but mostly melancholy and minor-key and low. The instrumentation helps — band members Ben Godfrey, Shane Patrick, and E. Marshall Graves play a dizzying array of instruments, from plunking banjo to drunken barroom piano to mournful trombone to church-y organ , and enlist friends to add some gorgeously orchestral strings to the affair, all of which give the album its out-of-time feel.

The album technically ends with two “Watchman, Tell Me” tracks, but as good and poignantly sweet as they are, they come off misplaced and tacked-on. For my money, skip ahead after “If I Leave” and then back to the track that truly has to be the closer, “When The Man Comes,” which starts off slow but revs up into a mournful, frantic near-rocker that seems to promise salvation and redemption in spite of everything that’s come before. When Godfrey, Patrick, and Marshall pound away at their instruments and howl in desperation and fear, an honest-to-God shiver runs down my spine and I start to wonder about what comes after for all of us.

[listenlisten is playing 5/15/09 at Mango's, along with Robert Ellis & Buxton, and 5/16/09 at ArtStorm compilation release party at The Mink, along with News on the March, Young Mammals, Buxton, Roky Moon & Bolt, The Mathletes, Elaine Greer, Alpaca, One Hundred Flowers, listenlisten, The Brood, Giant Princess, & B L A C K I E.]
(Murkville Music -- 519 I-30 #208, Rockwall, TX. 75087; http://www.murkvillemusic.com/; listenlisten -- http://listenlisten.org/)
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Review by . Review posted Thursday, May 14th, 2009. Filed under Reviews.

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2 Responses to “listenlisten, Hymns From Rhodesia

  1. SPACE CITY ROCK » Good News Time: listenlisten Hits Daytrotter on June 27th, 2011 at 2:31 pm

    […] nicely, and “Shall We Meet Beyond The River?” (both of which are from 2009′s Hymns from Rhodesia is similar, with those harmony vocals coming to the fore in a very new […]

  2. SPACE CITY ROCK » Westheimer Block Party, Supersized (11/14-11/15) on November 14th, 2011 at 9:01 am

    […] listenlisten […]

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