On Ray Raposa's first Castanets record in five years, the elements of the formula haven't changed very much, though the album works best when the balance between those elements shift in fresh ways.
For a minute there, it seemed like Castanets was done. Ray Raposa had formed a new band, Raymond Byron and the White Freighter, an act that left behind much of the electronic darkness that could tilt a Castanets song on its axis in favor of playing with more straightforward Americana sound. But, as with many of his songs, Raposa takes an unpredictable path, and this time it has brought him back around to Castanets in the form of a new record called Decimation Blues.
The title certainly fits with the vibe Raposa has always built in this project, and really the elements of the formula haven't changed very much on this record, though the way those elements come together has shifted slightly. Decimation Blues, unlike its predecessors, rarely uses an acoustic guitar as its jumping off point. No matter how icy and odd electronics could get on past records, there were still embers of folk tradition under it to melt things a bit. And there is guitar here, to be sure, but it seems distant, bleary-eyed, obscured. Opener "First" prefers organ to using the guitar at all. "Be My Eyes" starts with an electric guitar rundown, but then leaves it wholly behind for skittering programmed beats and synthesizers. On past records, "To Look Over the Grounds" would have been a perfect return to basics, an acoustic number that brings us closer to the voice at the center of this Astral-cana fray. You can imagine warm strumming as Raposa, in all his brimstone glory, wonders "Who's gonna be here to watch over the grounds?" Instead, we get the odd electric note, and a lot of gospel-sized backing vocals and those keyboards opening up airy space between them.
Decimation Blues succeeds best when it refashions these old elements into something new. When the acoustic guitar does show up prevalently in the rolling "Black Bird Tune", we heard the often isolated Raposa not lighting out for the territories but rather for some "old ones" to "catch 'em up on what's good." It's a shining, even rollicking moment on an album often stuck on the dark side of the moon. The guitar accents piano at the center of the heartbroken and quiet "Cub Kitten", while "Pour It Tall" uses guitar to shape the silence around Raposa's high-in-the-mix voice, as he delivers some of his trademark lines of lonesome sweetness when "the night is creeping like a vine" around him. The nocturnal tune hones in on the accents, the twang and warble, but scrapes out the center of the song, so it plays like a inverted Hank Williams tune.
These are the moments where Castanets feels like it never went away, when Raposa reminds us of his songwriting prowess, of his ability to reimagine traditions even as he pays deep tribute to them. But the formula here also creates odd inequalities. Even at its most challenging, Castanets music always had a hand reaching to pluck at the stars while a boot kicked up the dust. Here, though, the dust is too often absent. "Be My Eyes" is too far into the tweaking electronic side of Raposa's sound, and in the end feels like its floats away, and Raposa sounds like he's trying to grab hold of the skittering beat at every turn and keeps just missing. "Out For the West" is an interesting and challenging narrative – that starts with Sean Penn on the cover of a magazine, works through the highlights of a Trailblazers game and circles back around to applauding Harvey Milk – but the song unravels on a noodling solo that disrupts its calm reminiscence.
What has made Castanets work at its best is the way in which Raposa's musical tangents and incongruities seemed effortless. They were eccentric but in a pure, often guileless way. The harder moments on Decimation Blues feels too forced in their oddness, too self-conscious for us to really follow. Maybe this is a record that shakes off the rust, because there's plenty here to like. But the point of returning shouldn't be to convince us things are the same. It's to show us what's changed.