Recently upgraded to mid-fi production and displaying more varied arrangements, Casiotone for the Painfully Alone's latest is probably his best, more accessible without sacrificing any of his sharp-witted observational lyricism.
Owen Ashworth has come a long way. During the recording of his first couple albums, released in 1999 and 2001, he'd record newly conceived lyrics straight into his answering machine to remember them, and sometimes these takes -- tinny sound, crackles, and all -- found their ways into his simple, direct, and gloriously lo-fi completed keyboard compositions. It was the '90s-era Mountain Goats boom box aesthetic all over again. Five years later, Ashworth seems to be warming to studio production. Those first two Casiotone for the Painfully Alone albums were re-released as a single newly mastered compilation last November (no, not re-mastered -- the originals were never mastered previously) and his fourth full-length, Etiquette, if not precisely hi-fi, basks in more ambitious arrangements and mid-fi production. And as with the afore-mentioned Mountain Goats, the constant here, regardless of production level, is concise, effective songwriting.
Ashworth is a storyteller, and his stories are easy to relate to. The new album, Etiquette, beyond the usual smattering of cleverly rendered doomed relationships, is largely concerned with a familiar sort mid-20s listlessness, with the creeping "what now?" realization that world isn't really as accommodating as we'd hoped it would be as kids. His characters graduate from college or set out from home for their first apartments, full of hope and promise, only to find themselves run down by mundane problems as they attempt to carve out lives for themselves: their best-friends and roommates get into relationships and move out, they're stuck working meaningless jobs through Christmas ("second shift as a fry cook/ that's your holiday in grease"), or they can't make rent and wind up moving home again in the end. The situations are simple ones, rendered in clear, concise detail without any kind of interpretation or embellishment, but this allows them to achieve a certain universality and mostly side-steps the sort of melodrama you might expect from a band with "for the Painfully Alone" in its name. Or alternately, handles its subjects with all the irony that you might expect from a band with "for the Painfully Alone" in its name.
What really sets Etiquette apart from its predecessors, though, is the increased attention to production and arrangement. Whereas past Casiotone efforts have suffered from a degree of monotony -- nearly all songs stripped to distorted keyboard and drum machine -- now they all manage to distinguish themselves in various ways. Opener "New Year's Kiss" is one of the most traditional, featuring a terminally exhausted drum loop and bleary piano chords to convey his subject's dimly remembered prior night, hopes not so much thwarted as proven misdirected, while "Nashville Parthenon" displays steel guitar solos and songs like first single "Young Shields" and "Scattered Pearls" resemble some kind of tarnished club culture, complete with layered synthesizer and handclaps. The latter also exemplifies another compelling addition: it is sung, not by Ashworth, but by long-term friend Jenn Herbinson, one of several guest vocalists to appear on the album. Ashworth's voice -- rough, untrained, and strikingly emotive -- is well-suited to his songwriting, but he only benefits from the measure of counterpoint the additional singers provide. The more ambitious arrangements, coupled with the cleaner sound separation the improved production affords, make Etiquette the most approachable Casiotone album to date, without any notable sacrifices.
As much as I hope to see these awkward, clear-sighted, and often beautiful songs spread out to a much wider audience, I suppose that realistically, pared-down Casio keyboard arrangements, however literate and pertinent, might not appeal to everyone. With the new album, though, Ashworth has taken well-placed strides to broaden that appeal, and his writing -- always his strongest point -- is at least as good as ever. And for old fans, or anyone who has hung onto their first yard sale battery-operated keyboard all these years, or anyone who has ever found themselves just barely getting by in a useless job in a new city, Etiquette should find immediate appeal.