Casiotone for the Painfully Alone is not only a clever band name but an apt one. First, Owen Ashworth, who is the band here, does indeed rely heavily on a Casio keyboard. Second, his songs do all deal with people who are, indeed, painfully alone. But most importantly, the band name sounds both cheesy and serious. The music on Answering Machine Music, Casiotone for the Painfully Alone’s recently reissued, 1999 debut album (originally self-released, now on Tomlab, which also released his second album Pocket Symphonies for Lonesome Subway Cars), is kitschy, very pop, yet also quite intimate and affecting. Ashworth takes heartbreaking sentiment and puts it over twinkly little keyboard bits. He also sets gorgeous melodies against totally-‘80s drum machines, and uses both emotionally baring song titles like “It’s winter and you don’t love me anymore” and silly but clever ones like “Casiotone for the painfully alone joins the foreign legion” or “A normal suburban lifestyle is a near impossibility once you’ve fallen in love with an international spy”. That mix of wry humor and confessional songwriting is what makes Answering Machine Music so effective: it’s fun and moving, goofy and earnest.
On one level, Ashworth is a singer-songwriter in the tradition of Will Oldham, the Mountain Goats or Arab Strap, writing dark, heart-baring songs that have the starkness and stillness of a black-and-white still photo capturing someone in an intimate moment. He sings lyrics like “the only thing keeping me alive are your picture in my pocket and a dollar forty-five” and ponders lost loves and past mistakes with a plaintive sense of melancholy. On the other hand, he’ll use self-deprecating humor to lighten the tone of his despair, like when he describes trying to meet a girl at the supermarket: “in an attempt to get my groove on, I offered you my White Castle coupon”.
The music bridges that gap by generating a wondrous sense of atmosphere from just a few mini-Casio keyboards. Those keyboards inevitably bring with them a certain sense of cheese that balances with the lyrics and atmosphere in a unique way. But they also carry a homemade quality that makes Ashworth feel like he could be your next-door neighbor. The fact that he recorded these songs on boomboxes, answering machines, and 4-tracks adds to that feeling and accentuates the effects of the songs by helping them feel universally human, like they’re about you and your friends as much as they’re about Ashworth and his.
What we end up with on Answering Machine Music is music that’s lush even though it’s cheaply made and heartbreaking at the same time that it’s funny. This is pop music that comes from real life. “Daina Flores you’re the one” takes the form of a goodbye note in a yearbook, while other songs sound like unsent love letters or unrecorded answering machine confessions. The songs on Answering Machine Music could have come directly off your answering machine; that is, if your would-be lover or ex-friend is also a genius songwriter.