Chicago's battery-powered bard serves up a solid singles collection in advance of his fifth full-length.
Owen Ashworth, the sole member of Casiotone for the Painfully Alone, is an old-fashioned sort of guy. This trait was once embodied by Ashworth's aesthetic conceit -- his decision to use outmoded, battery-powered Casiotone keyboards as his only instruments -- though he wisely chose to widen his sonic palette on 2006's excellent Etiquette. Since rendering his nom de plume at least partially inaccurate (rumor has it that he's also not quite "painfully alone"), Ashworth has managed to flaunt his antiquated tastes in other ways, most notably by promoting his format of choice. In the three years since Etiquette, he's released nine singles and splits, all of which were sold as 7"s pressed in quantities of a few hundred each.
As a result, the last three years have been a wonderful time to be a Casiotone fan. By releasing a new single every few months, Ashworth recaptured the kind of excitement that once encouraged even casual music fans to rush out and buy the latest singles from their favorite artists. Of course, times have changed, and despite its popularity within certain subcultural circles, the 45 has largely been viewed as a dead format ever since the demise of the jukebox. This means that only diehard Casiotone fans and/or vinyl fetishists have heard the songs that Ashworth has produced over the course of the last three years, many of which have been good enough to warrant wider release. And so we arrive at Advance Base Battery Life, a compilation of hard-to-find tracks culled from singles, splits, and compilations released between 2005 and 2008.
Ashworth wisely kicks off Advance Base Battery Life with "Old Panda Days", the strongest single he's penned since Etiquette. The song, a deliberately paced number propelled by a cymbal-heavy, start-and-stop beat, prominently features many of Casiotone's trademark devices: post-collegiate malaise, a guest vocalist (in this case, Nick Krgovich of No Kids and P:ano), a protagonist of uncertain gender ("I've been searching this town / And all I have found / Are nights of bad sex with stupid boyfriends I shouldn't have kept / And a stupid flat that I never swept"). At just over two minutes in length, it's an enticingly concise nugget of a song and serves as the perfect introduction to Ashworth's distinctive brand of minimalist, character-driven synth-pop.
"Lesley Gore on the T.A.M.I. Show", the B-side to "Old Panda Days", mines similar territory, pairing vocals from frequent Casiotone collaborator Jenny Herbinson with a protagonist who pines from afar, finally penning a mash note to her beloved, only to have it fall out of her pocket ("Seven pages on 16th street / I lost my words under tires and feet"). "White Corolla", meanwhile, feels slightly more upbeat, its bouncy synth tones keeping things afloat amid a sea of details rendered with a novelist's eye ("You take your coffee black / The way your mother would / One pack of Sweet'n Low / One pack of sugar").
In addition to the Casiotone originals, Advance Base Battery Life also features a number of covers, most of which feel like reverential nods to Ashworth's musical heroes. His cover of Paul Simon's "Graceland" marries the original's sorrowful undercurrent to a harsh, low-end-heavy beat, producing a track that feels at once achingly melancholic and inexplicably triumphant. Pairing with his brother Gordon, a.k.a. Concern, for two Bruce Springsteen covers, Ashworth strikes the appropriate tone of quiet desperation on "Streets of Philadelphia", though the robot vocals on "Born in the USA" make it feel a bit like a tongue-in-cheek throwaway. And on a cover of Missy Elliot's "Hot Boyz", Dear Nora's Katy Davidson manages to ride the beat while Ashworth sounds laconic and disinterested. It's funny -- if a little facetious -- though given both Davidson's and Ashworth's proclivity for heartfelt sincerity, it's not difficult to give them the benefit of the doubt.
There are, unfortunately, a few misses to be found here as well. "Holly Hobby" feels flat without Davidson's empathetic vocals, and "The Only Way to Cry" -- which appeared alongside "Holly Hobby" on Casiotone's 2005 split with Fox Pause -- is a bit too overwrought for its own good. "It's a Crime", a spare confessional that reimagines Ashworth as a coffee shop folkie, stands as the compilation's low point. The song's protagonist, a jealous moper, lacks the emotional complexity that Ashworth usually grants his characters, and the austere arrangement gives the listener little choice but to scrutinize the lyrics. As a result, "It's a Crime" is a painful listen, especially when compared to Ashworth's successful forays into guitar-based rock with San Diego slackers the Donkeys.
Ultimately, Advance Base Battery Life stands as a mostly enjoyable, if slightly disjointed, recap of Ashworth's non-album singles. That the record wants for cohesiveness is hardly surprising -- it is a singles collection, after all -- but that minor quibble shouldn't discourage any Casiotone fans who have yet to hear these songs. If, however, you've managed to collect most of the singles revisited here, you'll likely find little of interest on this release, though fret not: Advance Base Battery Life is meant to serve as little more than an appetizer. The main course -- Ashworth's fifth full-length release, Vs. Children -- is due at the end of next month.