It’s rare that a new music genre is created. That doesn’t stop critics from penning new terms to fit the same old crap. Alternative music and grunge blossomed in the early ‘90s, but they were hardly new. They did mix rock, pop, metal, and punk influences, but Nirvana and Candlebox didn’t really do enough new things to warrant a separate category of music. The recent freak-folk movement presents a similar situation. It’s pretty much just folk music. People seem to forget that Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell were/are freaks, or at least have been considered so. Have you heard Bob Dylan sing? Freak. Joni Mitchell’s high-pitched vibrato? Freak. Devendra Banhart, Joanna Newsome, and a host of others in the freak-folk movement play basic folk songs with naturalistic imagery, earthly instruments, and weird vocals. In fact, the only thing freaky is the vocals. Banhart sounds weird. Newsome sounds weird. It seems to be a folk prerequisite these days. Do you sound odd when you sing? Don’t join a band; play folk music!
Castanets have been lumped in with these freak folks for good reason. Namely, the lead singer has a long beard and sounds like a freak. What more do you need? Actually the instrumentation and mood created by their album are much freakier than any song about birds, trees, and precipitation. Many of the songs on First Light’s Freeze are creepy. This isn’t the lost soundtrack to the ‘60s; this is the lost soundtrack to a zombie love movie. Even though Castanets create folk music with tinges of country, this is not the same old crap. But saying whether it’s pleasant or unpleasant, uplifting or depressing, that’s the tricky part. The mood is ambiguous. The one absolute is that the album is consistently captivating.
Many tracks hum with electronics and crawl along at a codeine pace with Raymond Raposa’s quivering voice and sedate acoustic guitar showing themselves every once in a while. “A Song Is Not the Song of the World” quickens the pace, adds the shortened version of a Sonic Youth guitar solo, and features chanting vocals. “Good Friend, Yr Hunger” sports a musical scale reminiscent of the lick used on the Rolling Stones’ “Mother’s Little Helper”.
“No Voice Was Raised” is the best example of what the Castanets can do with their sound. It’s also the musical equivalent of a dream sequence. It begins at the normal Castanets-style leisurely pace and reserved quietness until fading into a new section with live drums, squealing brass, and harsh feedback. This noise segues back into the calm section. You wake up at the end of it, saying to yourself, “What the fuck just happened?”
I think about folk music while listening to the CD, but throughout the album, I hear a more prominent Radiohead influence than that of dirty skin, knotted hair, and the smell of patchouli. “All That I Know to Have Changed in You” evokes “Like Spinning Plates” when mechanical swooshing noises rush past the melody, and traditional instruments are an afterthought. It creates a beautiful, disjointed noise that’s impossible to turn away from. In an early song, the background noise hums and dashes behind the heavily echoed vocals and crisp guitar. It’s similar to “How to Disappear Completely”, in which the traditional acoustic guitar is buried in the mix in favor of computer-generated sounds.
The included instrumentals are a step backwards. Often their titles are in parentheses, suggesting that their role is unimportant, but sometimes they’re not in parentheses. It doesn’t make sense. Either way, they exist more as atmospheric noise and mood setters than pieces of music. Likewise, the songs without sonic bolstering, such as “Bells Aloud”, don’t differentiate themselves from similar freak-folk tunes. The song is bare bones. It’s barely even bones; it’s more just the marrow.
People seem to have the notion that difficult art must be loved or hated. The movie Magnolia is one example. The music of the Fiery Furnaces is another. First Light’s Freeze, however, can easily be loved, hated, and/or boring, often all at once. I don’t love it or hate it, and I don’t even know how much I enjoy listening to it. It certainly doesn’t make me happy. But the inventiveness and variety at work redeem the noise. Sublime highs greatly overshadow the weaknesses and the false steps. Listen to it. You’re in for one hell of a dream.