I’ve heard my favorite record thus far of 2009.
Casiotone For the Painfully Alone’s Vs. Children is the most personal record I’ve heard this year. After the stellar compilation Advance Base Battery Life, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect with Casiotone’s new material. Would it be more of the same? Or was the backlog cleared out with the intention of throwing down something new? As it turns out, this record is pretty in line with the general aesthetic of Etiquette (2006): a little more refined perhaps; a little more sparse on instrumentation (most notably, actually, sparse on the Casio tones), but still very much the Owen Ashworth we’ve come to know and love and from whom we’ve waited so anxiously for new material since 2006.
The first thing that hits me about this record is the rhythm section: It’s sparse and simple, usually just a bass drum with occasional tambourine, wood block or handclaps, sometimes with a bass guitar added in. But it does exactly what it’s there for -- more than just laying a foundation, it begins to tell the listener what the song is about. As with most of my favorite music, the instrumentation and melodies of the songs are secondary to the lyrics. This doesn’t mean that the music is not good or memorable in itself, some of these songs have great hooks and the record is absolutely something I’d rather listen to than read. “Man O' War” has some lovely string tones; there’s a really killer piano splash in the middle of “Harsh The Herald Angels Sing” and “Optimist Vs. The Silent Alarm (When The Saints Go Marching In)” very cleverly incorporates a traditional tune to add irony and weight to a song that sounds like something that could have easily fit onto In The Aeroplane Over the Sea. It’s just that the music serves to complement and highlight what Ashworth is trying to say, rather than generally make a statement on its own. A film critic would phrase this as “form following function” or artifice complementing content, and I believe it’s an important quality in any memorable work of art.
My favorite track is the last one on the record, “White Jetta”. Rife with that bombastic bass drum, the story of a Kansas City townie kid whose friends all leave for college closes on the mantra “to stay the same/ to never change” -- an echo of the title of a film Ashworth scored last year. I haven’t gotten to see that film so I’m not sure if any elements of this song were in there or if this line is just a quiet little nod, but I love it either way.
It’s so tempting to read any song at least semi-biographically, to attempt to infer some juicy details about a musician’s personal life through what he tells us on tape: but it’s impossible to do that with Owen Ashworth. The two common thematic threads throughout the album seem to be the struggles a person in trouble has (male or female) with abortion or pregnancy (Vs. Children, get it?), and the effects of a life of crime/Bonnie-and-Clyde style robbery (the cover even features an illustration suggesting Faye Dunaway's Bonnie Parker). A strong religious weight falls upon many of the songs as well, sometimes like an afterthought or an undertone, sometimes taking more center stage. But there’s no way Owen’s been a bank robber, a lonely housewife, or a pregnant lady. And if some lyrics can’t be trusted as autobiographical, none can -- we have to read all these “he”s and “I”s and “you”s as fictional characters. (I’m finally putting my English major knowledge to work; it’s the Unreliable Narrator!)
So what, then, makes this album feel so personal to me, if the characters in the songs are just inventions? Well, for one thing, it’s not hard to believe that Ashworth has lived most of these situations, at least in some metaphorical way. When he sings in “Traveling Salesman's Young Wife Home Alone On Christmas In Montpelier, VT”, “all I really want is you close to me/but you were already out the door/by the time that occurred to me,” he’s speaking in the voice of a very specific female character, but I’ve had that feeling before, and I’m sure Owen has too.
It seems relevant that these songs are the first of any recent Casiotone set with lead vocals handled completely by Ashworth himself; even the songs with feminine narrators aren’t sung with a female’s voice like, say, on “Scattered Pearls” from Etiquette. With the fictionalized characters and the ubiquitously-used second person narrative style, this is Ashworth’s way of taking ownership.
Also importantly, Owen Ashworth lets himself bleed physicality all over the place. We hear pretty much every time he takes a breath or parts his lips. There is no artifice here, just a real person laying out the best words he can.
Aside from the major subject matter mentioned above, the longing for the mythical place called “home” and the determination of a sense of self are usually the underlying themes behind these and any Casiotone lyrics, and that can be a deeply personal thing to any of us. Even when singing about characters in situations that many of us will never experience, somehow Casiotone for the Painfully Alone seems to strike right to the heart of what it means to be a broken human being. That’s what always keeps me coming back to see what kind of heist he’ll be pulling off next.