Casiotone for the Painfully Alone: Advance Base Battery Life

Chicago's battery-powered bard serves up a solid singles collection in advance of his fifth full-length.

Casiotone for the Painfully Alone

Advance Base Battery Life

Label: Tomlab
UK Release Date: 2009-03-10
US Release Date: 2009-03-10

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.






A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.


Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.


PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.


'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.


Bright Eyes' 'Down in the Weeds' Is a Return to Form and a Statement of Hope

Bright Eyes may not technically be emo, but they are transcendently expressive, beatifically melancholic. Down in the Weeds is just the statement of grounding that we need as a respite from the churning chaos around us.


Audrey Hepburn + Rome = Grace, Class, and Beauty

William Wyler's Roman Holiday crosses the postcard genre with a hardy trope: Old World royalty seeks escape from stuffy, ritual-bound, lives for a fling with the modern world, especially with Americans.


Colombia's Simón Mejía Plugs Into the Natural World on 'Mirla'

Bomba Estéreo founder Simón Mejía electrifies nature for a different kind of jungle music on his debut solo album, Mirla.


The Flaming Lips Reimagine Tom Petty's Life in Oklahoma on 'American Head'

The Flaming Lips' American Head is a trip, a journey to the past that one doesn't want to return to but never wants to forget.


Tim Bowness of No-Man Discusses Thematic Ambition Amongst Social Division

With the release of his seventh solo album, Late Night Laments, Tim Bowness explores global tensions and considers how musicians can best foster mutual understanding in times of social unrest.


Angel Olsen Creates a 'Whole New Mess'

No one would call Angel Olsen's Whole New Mess a pretty album. It's much too stark. But there's something riveting about the way Olsen coos to herself that's soft and comforting.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Masma Dream World Go Global and Trippy on "Sundown Forest" (premiere)

Dancer, healer, musician Devi Mambouka shares the trippy "Sundown Forest", which takes listeners deep into the subconscious and onto a healing path.


Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" Is an Ode for Unity in Troubling Times (premiere)

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" is a gentle, prayerful tune that depicts the heart of their upcoming album, Crucible.


'What a Fantastic Death Abyss': David Bowie's 'Outside' at 25

David Bowie's Outside signaled the end of him as a slick pop star and his reintroduction as a ragged-edged arty agitator.


Dream Folk's Wolf & Moon Awaken the Senses with "Eyes Closed" (premiere)

Berlin's Wolf & Moon are an indie folk duo with a dream pop streak. "Eyes Closed" highlights this aspect as the act create a deep sense of atmosphere and mood with the most minimal of tools.


Ranking the Seasons of 'The Wire'

Years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of-TV lists. With each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites.


Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.


The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.