"Well," drawls Howe Gelb, "a piano stealing Lou Reed licks. Licks he probably stole."
We're on track two and this is the first vocal line on the record, since it opened with a lovely scene-setting instrumental. Gelb sets out his storefront with both music and words.
The Listener travels at a leisurely pace, blending the dominant piano with intimate strings and occasional gorgeous theremin or trumpet. There is just enough odd experimental boinkery to remind you it's a modern thing, not some ancient cocktail-poetry crossover.
Gelb does sound like Lou Reed or Bill from Smog sometimes but he's gentler and the dry, observational mood is light-years from Reed's grubby vanity.
The album peaks halfway through, with a bottom-heavy downbeat ballad, 'Lying There' and 'B 4 U (Do Do Do)', which knocks down the melody line from 'Lean On Me' and gleefully pisses a psychedelic alt-country jam all over it.
Useful guests include Gelb's long-term backing band Calexico and a great cameo from the Handsome Family but the star is always his own wit and wry storytelling. On the sleeve there's a fake journal, in which Gelb says he's only making music as a cover, to find customers for a ball-bearing business. But the self-mocking detachment was unnecessary, this exemplary, exotic album will be a friend for a long time.
8Toby Jarvis's Score