Castanets' fourth release finds Ray Raposa and company settling down into a more conventional song structure while continuing to maintain their dark, eerie, spacious sound.
Out of all the acts tagged under the "freak-folk" genre, the man behind Castanets -- Ray Raposa -- may be the "freakiest." Raposa doesn’t claim a city as a home but rather spends his time rambling between Portland, Brooklyn, and where he grew up, San Diego, California. His live shows include a generous amount of improvisation where songs are almost never faithful to their record. Then there are the records, where Raposa doesn’t so much record folk music but deconstruct it. His past releases are often spacious affairs where instrumentation is broken down to its most essential, and acts as a tool by which Raposa manipulates the heavy tension often riveting under his eerie, monotone vocals and dense, literary lyrics. These releases seem tied together as one extensive work in progress that have never fully hit on what they are attempting to achieve. The fourth release from Castanets, Texas Rose, the Thaw and the Beasts, finds Raposa continuing his trend of spacey, deconstructed folk while skimming the surface of conventional song structure with a little help from members of San Diego acts Rockets From the Crypt, GoGoGo Airheart, and Black Heart Procession.
The first track, "Rose", immediately exhibits this new foray into more conventional song structure and is possibly one of Raposa’s most accessible songs ever recorded. Full of handclaps and backup singers, the song finds Raposa singing from the first-person point of view of a downtrodden woman and ultimately creates a rather conventional folk tune that still retains the dark and airy mood that characterizes previous outputs. The outcome is a stunning introduction that seems to indicate that Raposa may have finally found his focus. This continues on "No Trouble", which begins as a slow, sinister march where dim notes from an organ and a slide guitar build off a simple drum beat from a tin-like snare drum. The song builds and collapses in intensity as Raposa sings through an effect that sounds like fuzzy AM radio and evokes stylish horror films and long, night drives on a dark Texas highway. David Lynch would be proud.
Acting as the centerpiece to the rest of the album, "No Trouble" attains a level of creepy splendor that Raposa and company fail to fully repeat. "Down the Line, Love" is a softer affair that is even more conventional than the opening track. As a borderline ballad, the track starts off promising as a simple song of love and failure but missteps in slapping on a bit too much retrograde with sprawling piano scales and a squealing guitar solo by its conclusion. This turn towards the nostalgic continues on the following song, "Lucky Old Moon", that is awkwardly built off of electronic keyboards reminiscent of forgettable '80s pop music.
With the exception of the closing track, "Dance, Dance", the rest of Texas Rose is much of the same kind of textured sparseness that is becoming a signature Castanets sound. "Worn from the Fight (with Fireworks)" successfully bridges the combination of a reverberating country-guitar and a basic electronic beat -- something Raposa has shown interest in on past releases. While "On Beginning" similarly incorporates arbitrary electronic blips and beeps with a resonating organ over Raposa’s whispering voice. While on previous releases these songs were usually the string that tied each track to the next, they find themselves often inept companions to Raposa’s foray into the more conventional on Texas Rose.
The attempt at forging these two sounds seems like a step in the right direction for Raposa, but unfortunately comes as the expense of Raposa’s lyrical competence on Texas Rose. When song and sound is left to its bare structure, Raposa has often been able to fill in these lacking elements with captivatingly complex lyrics that often explore the constant tension between the spiritual and the profane -- such themes that characterize folk or country music. Raposa has never been one to shy from exploring these facets as he attempts to break down the various elements that infuse the music his songs are founded from. However, many of the lyrics on Texas Rose find Raposa less a poet and more a storyteller, often taking on the identity of a broken-hearted individual full of regret singing for one’s remorse in a most traditional and sometimes banal fashion.
The real highlight from Raposa’s pen on Texas Rose comes in "My Heart", which creatively expounds upon the various functions of organs and limbs: "My ears are bending and hearing for you / And my tongue is forming new words and you / My lungs are calling like birds for you". The repetitive dedication and servitude to an unnamed, enigmatic individual thematically and structurally resemble themes often exemplified in traditional Christian worships songs -- an obvious influence on the country/folk genre. Yet, Raposa’s removal of the subject coupled with the empty repetitive nature of the music allows him to effectively utilize these traditional aspects without fully connecting or associating with them. Call it gospel music for the non-believer or country music for the hipster urbanite. Unfortunately, these instances continue to be erratic and leave another Castanets album a captivating but frustratingly unbalanced release.
Walter Benjamin once wrote for an introduction to Baudelaire’s Tableaux Parisiens that "No poem is intended for the reader, no picture for the beholder, no symphony for the listener". Raposa’s music has always been complex and guardedly personal. Texas Rose is markedly similar in this regard and consequently another chapter in Raposa’s development as an artist that is beginning to seem more a journey that is less for us, and more for him.