Interestingly enough, Estranged, the first release from Minneapolis trio Casava Experiment, has caused me to reexamine some of my principles. I found myself faulting the band over and over for their lack of irony and, when even irony seemed too much to ask, for their lack of wit. And then I asked myself: Do I consider irony and self-effacement to be necessary markers of value? Am I unfairly biased against earnestness and straightforwardness? The last thing I would want to do is contribute, even in my small way, to a critical culture governed by sarcasm and other adolescent criteria of cool.
I thought about it, and I think that Casava Experiment still comes up short, though not necessarily because the band is unapologetically sincere. The reasons are musical, lyrical, and stylistic. Though each member brings considerable musical training to the group—vocalist/keyboardist Susan Custer is trained in classical harp, piano, and voice and bassist Adam Vogt has extensive jazz training—the arrangements are often flat and uneven. The keyboards sound to these admittedly untrained ears like simple vamping and washes, with the exception of one song which features some arpeggios. The melodic and able bass is often the saving grace (when it can be heard) but Custer’s vocals are mixed so high that it’s hard to hear. The result is something like a combination of Depeche Mode and Poi Dog Pondering, in which cheesy synth licks compete with Custer’s soulful belting for stylistic precedence. I’ve got nothing against one or the other, but the combination doesn’t seem to work here. It’s sort of like organizing an entire symphony around the saxophone; Custer’s strident contralto just needs a more appropriate background. This may be part of the whole “experiment” thing (and the press kit describes them as “art-rock”), but as we all know from high-school chemistry, some elements just don’t mix.
The lyrics are in fine focus because of the high vocal mix, and here I found myself cringing once again. I don’t think I require impressionistic or deliberately obscure lyrics, but lines like “Crawl around in my skin and you will see how this world is so full of hypocrisy” are not only simpleminded, but self-pitying. The song I just quoted, “Ugly Witch”, is probably the worst offender on the record, though in this case the switch from synth to real piano is welcome and kind of pretty, with some diminished chords to complicate the usually sunshiny feel. Close behind “Ugly Witch” in terms of adolescent self-indulgence is “Listen”, earnestly italicized I suppose to highlight its urgency. The whole song seems to be a kind of plea to “take a different point of view and do as you insist” over and against those who “stare through plastic eyes”—but it does not take a Ph.D. in poetics to realize that in a song called “Listen” the overall conceit should be, well, aural. Snarky litcrit commentary aside, I had a hard time identifying with the urgency of the call to action because it was laid out in such arrogant terms. I’ve got no problem with the “it’s better to light one candle than to curse the darkness” sort of mentality, but jeez, guys, “plastic eyes”? Wow, and all this time I was going around thinking that everyone in the world was totally sincere and well-meaning and open-hearted. Gosh, you mean sometimes people are evil and insincere, fashion-driven and shallow? My God, I’ve been living a lie!
I don’t think this band is without potential, I just think such an obviously well-trained trio should reexamine what it is they want to accomplish with the “experiment”. The last song, “Walk Alone”, approaches the cheerful darkness of The Beautiful South, another band that eschews the usual guitar-based rock format and features a strong-voiced woman. For once the bassline is allowed to drive the song’s energy, and with the more textured arrangement of synth arpeggios and little sparkling bell accents, Custer’s voice finally contributes rather than overwhelms (and, thank goodness, for the most part I couldn’t make out the lyrics). I just think that at this stage in the game, the best these three can work towards is intelligent straightforwardness. I’d like to see them accomplish that, and then maybe they can think about revolutionizing the genre.