Ray Raposa spent five records making music under the Castanets moniker, crafting strangely broken down folk records, albums with as much experimentation and soundscapes as it had down-in-the-dust, hard-scrabble songs. Raposa’s keen songwriting and creaky voice gave the songs personality and plenty of bittersweet emotion, but Castanets was always a thorny, difficult project to pin down.
His new band, which finds him renaming himself as well, is Raymond Byron and the White Freighter, and it proposes a return to basics. The groups first album, Little Death Shaker, is indeed more straightforward than most anything you heard from Castanets. It’s a collection of barroom blues and plainspoken folk and Americana that is less about experimenting with shape than it is about making its structures clear. These are, back to back, firmly built songs. From the gate, this shift, if a slight one, seems to suit Raposa. Opener “Allegiance” is a crunchy blues number, with big guitars jangling around Raposa’s trademark rasp. It’s a lively permutation of the isolated searching that informs much of Raposa’s songwriting – “I hit the street,” he says here, “upright and alone” – and for his part, the guy who always sounded powerful yet faint, never gets lost among these bigger sounds. As tangled as the guitars are here, his half-whispered voice is always heard.
Despite a focus on the songs themselves, the White Freighter is a band unafraid to stretch out into different sounds. The bouncy, organ pop of the title track is full of haunting backing vocals and clean guitar rundowns and far gauzier layers than “Allegiance”. “Some of My Friends” is a front-porch stomper and plays like the struggling musician’s anti-“Luchenbach, Texas”. “Some of my friends are selling 10,000, and some of my friends are still playing houses,” he tells us, and though neither are “the worst way to go,” by the song’s end “some of my friends got jealous of each other’s managers.” It’s a curious, darkly funny, but plainly true song, one of a few on the album that seem to present themselves as novelty, but hit at something deeper and more lasting. “You’ll Never Surf Again” feels silly at first as a doctor tells the narrator exactly what the title says, but as the song goes on, and that line comes back again and again, it’s clear this is no joke, that there was a freedom in surfing, a joy now lost. The finest moments of the record find Raposa taking conventions – like the novelty song or the weary road tune on “Turnpike/Bedsheet” – and making them both personal and often aching. So if White Freighter deals in clear songs, they also play with the expectations of those songs.
Part of this involved a roadhouse raggedness that permeates the entire record. Things feel loose, even off the cuff. The way Phosphorescent’s Matthew Houck sings ovals around Raposa’s circular voice, the way the drums feel brittle and shuffling, the treble-light grit of the guitars – it makes the record feel wide-open and immediate, even frenzied in its own quiet way. Little Death Shaker, though, is not so much a whole new direction for Raposa as it is a new version of his old explorations. The guitars tones here all echo a unique and eccentric skronk. Raposa’s voice is still deeply buried in reverb, and as the album goes on, the songs themselves start to be more about their layers than the structures underneath them. The nearly 10-minute “State Line” is full of negative space, too much really, and Raposa’s vocals which get more and more drenched in fuzz as the song trudges along, obscuring itself in its own smudged atmosphere. “A Little More Credit”, earlier in the record, is a brief instrumental interlude, but its groaning feels too predetermined among these looser, livelier songs. And by the final track, “Allegiance 2” – which finds Raposa pleading, “oh Lord, be kind to me” – it’s almost all his voice, crackling with effects like a scratched record and impressionistic groans of instruments.
And so the blues-bad excitement of the rest of the record gets pushed aside in the records final third for more deathly spaces, spaces not unlike the ones we heard in Castanets. They present huge sonic terrains, but their terrains that sound like they were mapped out long ago, like they’re borders are perhaps far-off but sturdy, even over-thought in their construction. Little Death Shaker is exciting and surprising when it lets go a little, when the drums take off, when the guitars slice out chords and rattle off unruly leads, when Raposa leads the band through his broken-down American dream. We get to know this new performer, this Raymond Byron, on the new album, and he’s a charming talent, but he also hasn’t quite left behind that guy from Castanets just yet.