I don't like Howe Gelb very much when he decides he's a Beat poet. The Giant Sand frontman says "I want to be black like Kerouac", and I just don't get it. Kerouac consistently romanticized blackness beyond reality, or equated it with the worst aspects of its culture -- from drugs to laying about to the pose behind dear old Sonny's blues; to me, he simply sounds racist. If you share this perspective, it's impossible to appreciate the frivolous verse in "Felonious". The line should have been as light a cotton ball; instead, it gave the song an insidious personality. There's an absolutely glorious orchestral passage here that's like warm breath on human skin, but it's all for naught, as you'll remember nothing in an annoyed state.
The part of Gelb that tries to connect with this denizen-on-the-street crowd does little for me. His other basic songwriting approach -- to name-check Lou Reed so much that he sounds like a self-referential Lou Reed, rather than a copycat -- can be curious enough to be compelling. I also love that he's willing to throw the listener wild curves, like his drunk and staggering interpretation of "Lean On Me" via "B 4 U (Do Do Do)". Opener "Glisten" is anybody's masterpiece -- the prettiest cut I've heard this year, and easily the equal of a song like Randy Newman's "Feels Like Home". The piano is as expressive as those sweet Bill Evans ballads, and the melody has a comfortable, lived-in clunkiness. This instrumental brings so much anticipation to the rest of this record, it's no wonder I'm partly disappointed with The Listener: Gelb can't and doesn't deliver a dozen more songs like "Glisten". He has a great, yearning vocal on "Cowboy Boots", reminiscent of a topnotch Silver Jews track, and a handful of extraordinary female singers help his songs out, but The Listener is all "Glisten" to me. It's alcoholic piano, and it's sad faces watching other couples tango.