This isn't the sound of giving up, but rather the sound of pushing forward -- for these characters and for Owen Ashworth as a songwriter. And both futures seem bright.
So Advance Base has Owen Ashworth and a few other players laying different kinds of keys over basic drum-machine beats. On paper, it sounds a lot like his last project, Casiotone For the Painfully Alone. To hear his first Advance Base full-length, though, titled A Shut-In's Prayer, is to be pleasantly surprised by how much has changed even if the basic elements are the same. Gone is much of the biting deadpan of Casiotone and in its place is something softer. Casiotone was bitter about the past, the present, the future, but Advance Base shows Ashworth moving into some bittersweet nostalgia, into stories of people who are both in love with and heartbroken by a long-gone past.
Ashworth sells these personal stories with key details. The boombox scraggling out tune in the kitchen on "Summer Music", the game shows on the television on "New Gospel", the sting of cheap cigarettes in your lungs on "Christmas in Oakland" and so on. The memories here, most of them of childhood, highlight the small ways in which these people tried to escape. The boys in "Christmas in Oakland" snuck tall boys into the movies so they could "sleep half an hour into some awful thing." Meanwhile, the best friends in album standout "Riot Grrrls" got summer jobs at the cinema and "saw every movie we could sit through." One of the most interesting things Ashworth focuses on here are fictional stories and the way they hover around and distract the players in his own stories. People are constantly in the dark of a movie theater or in front of the television or lost in the radio's sound, and we're left to wonder over the role of storytelling and both its powers and limitations.
And no wonder these people want to escape, since the past Ashworth recounts seems isolated enough, and many of the relationships here are ones that long ago broke apart. The pair in "Riot Grrrls" took different paths -- the narrator went to college and started a family while her friend "went crazy" -- and the song is a bittersweet look back at what really made them different. "My Sister's Birthday" shows a familial relationship now broken by distance and ideology ("she has religion and I don't ask why") even though we hear tales of the sister defending her younger sibling in childhood. Throughout the record, we see how relationships were important though it's often little more than time and the change that comes with it that breaks them up, and the narrators wonder mostly about what could have been, where those people are now, what effect they had on them and vice versa.
The music is fittingly spare, since the narrators (as the title implies) seem closed off now, very much alone. And while there is something troubling about all this looking back, the music makes it more of a two-sided coin. The layers here are shimmering but spare, so that it feels like the perfect mix of sadness and hope that make up nostalgia. Hearing the blurry keys and simple drums you can practically see the grainy super-8 footage of childhood birthday parties rolling as this music plays. Similarly, Ashworth's groaning voice doesn't sound defeated so much as exhausted. He still speak-sings in his droning tone, but there's a lighter inflection here, a hope at the far edge of what he's saying, either the hope that things will go back to how they were or get better again.
Whichever it is, you can't help but get wrapped up in the hoping. A Shut-In's Prayer is a record that taps into our own regrets, big and small, and our own list of relationships that have fallen by the wayside over the years. But it never preys on them, it never inflicts its feeling upon us. Ashworth has always had an eye for detail and a knack for storytelling, but this is by far his most fully realized bunch because there's a more generous spirit to these. Make no mistake, they are isolated and melancholy, but the narrators here don't lash out in blame or hide behind snark. This is an album of taking stock, of both taking responsibility and worrying over the unexplainable way we lose people from our lives. The last song, "Shut-In River Blues" says it all without saying anything. The wordless song is a simple piano rag, but its thump is a bright one, the sound of shaking these stories off, of telling them to (hopefully) leave them behind. This isn't the sound of giving up, but rather the sound of pushing forward -- for these characters and for Ashworth as a songwriter. And both futures seem bright enough.