Not the Usual Voices
Listener Refines and the Bad Plus Regenerates

The first time I saw Listener, I had no idea what I was witnessing.

It was at the AudioFeed Festival, of course, where I have discovered most of my new favorite bands for the past few years. Listener was a buzz band there, meaning the kids at the fest were positively giddy at the notion of seeing them play. I’d never heard of them, but had committed early on to trying as many new bands as I could over that weekend. I got maybe three songs in. I had no idea what to think.

They don’t seem that strange to me now, after years of immersion in their work. But that first exposure was something else. Listener is a rock band with a sometimes slow and abrasive edge, and they exist as a delivery method for Dan Smith’s poetry, which he spits out at a snarling, frantic pace. Honestly, there is no frontman in the world like Smith. Imagine if Craig Finn of the Hold Steady grew up on Fugazi, and you’re close, but not quite there.

One of my favorite things about Listener is that they’re already unique, but they keep growing. Each album has expanded their reach, aiming for new sounds and ideas. Their new one, Being Empty: Being Filled, is their most adventurous, and their best. Eight of its songs were released on seven-inches over the past few months, but the full album has just arrived, and if you’ve never heard Listener, I think this is a great starting point.

For one thing, if you want a basic idea of what this band does, you can’t ask for a better introduction than the first two songs here. “Pent Up Genes” is a simple rocker with some spit-fire lines from Smith and some robust horns (at one point playing “Taps”), and “Little Folded Fingers” might be the perfect Listener song – its insistent rumble reminds me of Shellac, it has a memorable chorus (which Listener songs sometimes eschew), and everything fires on all cylinders. I love how it dissipates, then comes roaring back at the end. This one’s going to kill live.

But for another, Being Empty finds the band staking out interesting new territory, and delivering the most complete vision of who they are. “There’s Money in the Walls” is a slowly unfolding undercurrent to Smith’s poetry, fired at you like bullets over the ocean. “Bloodshot/New Love” does interesting things with its vocal arrangement, finding Smith singing the choruses, speaking the verses and then shouting the bridge, while the music constantly shifts under him.

Even when they’re not innovating here, they’re delivering the best realization yet of Listener’s signature sound, as on “Shock and Value” and the immense “A Love Letter to Detroit.” This is their most polished record, and yet there’s a determined rawness to the best moments, the grooves connecting like gears made of sandpaper. While the more traditional Listener tracks are comforting, in their way, the album feels most dangerous when it steps outside that, most notably on closing track “Plague Doctor.” A true epic, this song begins with an explosion of drums from Kris Rochelle, fires some math-rock at us, then stops short, bringing in synthesizers, guitar choirs, space-y vocal effects and a whole ton of noise. It’s the most interesting song they’ve ever given us.

Your enjoyment of Listener will depend on whether you can roll with Dan Smith’s voice. The first time I heard a Listener album (the exquisite Time is a Machine), I was convinced he was yelling at me for the whole thing. It took a while to realize he was yelling with me. His lyrics are beautiful poems of encouragement, of recognition, of worth and value. Shouting along with them has become a particular pleasure of mine at AudioFeed. This is music made for shouting along with, for seeing yourself in, for feeling part of. It’s unfailingly earnest, heartfelt and powerful.

Being Empty: Being Filled would get my vote as the Listener album everyone curious about this band should hear. You can check it out at the band’s site. And you should also come to AudioFeed, where you’ll likely get the chance to see this material played live. I can’t wait.

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As any player can tell you, you don’t need to sing to have a voice. Instrumentalists have their own voices, their own telltale touches that make their sound their own. And if your instrumental band consists of, for instance, drums, bass and piano, changing the piano player can be just as wholesale a change as swapping in a new lead singer.

That’s exactly the situation the Bad Plus find themselves in, after parting ways with founding pianist Ethan Iverson in December after 17 years together. Iverson, along with drummer Dave King and bassist Reid Anderson, created a wholly individual sound for their band – not quite jazz, not quite rock, not quite prog, but with elements of all three liberally mixed together. They made their name covering rock, pop and prog tunes with instrumental flair, crafted sterling original tunes, worked up a trio take on The Rite of Spring, and worked with saxophonist Joshua Redman and vocalist Wendy Lewis.

After all that, you’d think that any one member of this group would be irreplaceable. But like everything else, the Bad Plus has made welcoming aboard a new lead player look easy. Orrin Evans is a well-respected jazz pianist, having recorded more than two dozen albums as a leader since 1994. He’s known Anderson and King for many years, and on the band’s new record, Never Stop II, he steps right in as if he’s always been there. From the title on down – it references the band’s 2010 album, their first to consist entirely of originals – this is a continuation of the Bad Plus, not a reboot of it.

That’s a good thing, in case it wasn’t clear. Never Stop II is chock full of the fascinating time signatures, memorable melodies and superb improvisation that has been this band’s trademark. Some of these songs – “Trace,” with its difficult-to-count single-note chorus, for instance, or “Safe Passage,” a beautiful, tricky, energizing thing – are classic Bad Plus. Evans contributes two songs, including “Boffadem,” on which he plays toy piano, and they sound tailor made for the Bad Plus, despite being older tunes repurposed for the band. “Commitment,” a ten-minute suite on Evans’ own Meant to Shine LP, here is a lean and languid four minutes, containing the most straight-up jazz improv section on the record.

Are there differences? Sure. Evans has a lighter, more immediately pleasing touch than Iverson, so when he plays the blockier, more prog-like tunes, they don’t sound quite as heavy. But when he improvises, his ear is more on melody than Iverson’s was. The result is more accessible without losing the edge they’ve always had. Evans is a terrific player, more than up to the challenge, and while he’s not doing an Iverson impression by any means, he slides into the Bad Plus style perfectly. Evans, steeped as he is in a hard bop style, will clearly bring a different outlook to the table, and I’m excited to hear his vision for where the band can go.

As for Never Stop II, its quick release – only 19 days after the band’s last gig with Iverson – is clearly intended to relieve those nervous about the change. It’s a terrific Bad Plus album, different in some ways but consistent in most. It begins the next chapter in this extraordinary band’s story with grace and confidence. I’m glad this next chapter exists, and I’m jazzed to read further.

Check out the Bad Plus here.

Next week, lots of options, from Franz Ferdinand to Brian Fallon to Frank Zappa. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

a column by andre salles