The first time I saw Owen Ashworth a.k.a. Casiotone for the Painfully Alone perform was in 2004. He was opening up for the Mae Shi at Chicago’s Empty Bottle and in a manner befitting of his nom de plume, carted a box full of battery-powered keyboards up on stage, which he proceeded to daisy-chain and feed into a sequencer. What in lesser hands might have amounted to little more than a lo-fi parlor trick was transformed into a series of rich, if minimalistic, sonic landscapes, rife with harsh, hip-hop-influenced beats and twinkling 8-bit tones (before said 8-bit tones were in style, I might add). But it wasn’t just the music that captured my attention that night, it was Ashworth’s lyrics, which tenderly sketched out portraits of disillusioned, lovelorn, post-collegiate drifters. A breed, one sensed, with which the author was intimately familiar.
In the years since, Ashworth has grown tremendously as a songwriter and musician, while continuing to render his character studies with both empathy and a healthy dose of gallows humor. On his latest LP, the aptly named Vs. Children, Ashworth, now in his thirties, grapples with the idea of parenthood, giving voice to his own anxieties through a series of eleven fictional vignettes. It’s an album, yes, but it begs to be approached more like a collection of short stories. There are memorable characters (the choir boy robber, the traveling salesman’s young wife, a Bonnie and Clyde-style pair of outlaws), recurring themes (absent fathers, unwanted and/or unexpected children, death) and a loose narrative arc that ties it all together. It should go without saying that Vs. Children is Ashworth’s most fully realized, cohesive work to date.
All this talk of lyrics, however, is not to suggest that Ashworth has been lax as a musician. Far from it: while he’s stuck with the Casiotone name, he’s increasingly widened his sonic palette, introducing organic instruments both in the studio and live. On Sunday night at the Black Cat’s Backstage, Ashworth’s songs were brought to life with striking warmth and depth by a five-piece band (Chicago’s Magical Beautiful), with guitars, drums, synths, bass, a Fender Rhodes and a trombone standing in for Casio keyboards. As impressive as this array of sounds was, it was the most skeletal songs that cut closest to the bone. On “Killers”, Ashworth stood alone at the keyboard, conjuring the Mellotron flute sound popularized by the Beatles and the wistful melancholy that it evokes. Ruminating on the personal ethics of birth control, the couple in “Killers” ultimately decides, with a nod to Bowie, “We could be killers/Just for one night”, a line Ashworth delivered with the devastating timing of a hospital waiting room joke.
Those Mellotron flutes popped up again on set closer “White Jetta”, backed by a delicate Rhodes line, tambourine and a massive boom-bap beat. As the song’s protagonist struggles with the responsibilities and disappointments of adult life, she repeats a couplet to herself like a mantra: “Stay the same/Never change”. Thankfully, Owen Ashworth, unlike his characters, seems to have realized that growth isn’t such a scary thing after all.