City of Refuge is so quiet and tense with energy, so spare and spacious, that you may believe it capable of being a dozen different kinds of albums. But no matter what it is, it's brilliant.
If you drive outside of Las Vegas, north on any number of roads -- Interstate 15, Route 93, Route 95, or even smaller routes like 167 -- the spread out city mess of neon and shine, of towering concrete and glass, quickly fades away in the rearview mirror. And the only thing you are left with is you and the desert space around you, the dry dusty air cracking the back of your throat, the road winding forever in front of you. Outside the City of Sin are spaces darker and more solitary. Where you can look around without being blinded by the glitz. Where the hum of electricity isn't always in your ears.
And if you follow Interstate 15 up to Route 169, near the Valley of Fire State Park, you'll find Overton. A town with little more than a motel and a couple of bars. The town doesn't have a stoplight. No one expects you to visit there, merely to pass through, back into the silent expanse of desert around it. And it is in that town that Ray Raposa, main man behind Castanets, spent three weeks alone and recorded his spare new album City of Refuge.
The album could be a soundtrack to any number of movies you've never seen. A long-lost spaghetti western. An intimate, low-budget character study. A slow-burning psychological thriller. The music here is so quiet and tense with energy, so spare and spacious, that if you give it enough listens, you may believe it capable of being a dozen different things.
But if it is to represent the time and place in which it was made, and the man who made it, then City of Refuge is a staggering success. It is both distinctly Raposa's sound and unlike anything he's done before. Guitar instrumentals like "Celestial Shore" and "The Quiet" are draped in the echoes of the desert. The three noise experiments on the album, all titled "High Plain", hum and click with the blinking of that lone lighted Motel sign. The sign, we can imagine, mentions nothing about vacancy. No one ever suspects the place full.
And interwoven between these instrumentals are Raposa's bone-deep ballads. As a long-time roamer, Raposa has always managed to infuse his music with the feel of travel, the grind of concrete beneath tires, the repetition of town-road-town all the way across the country. On songs like "Prettiest Chain", Raposa seems to be calling out to the desert stillness. He begs eagles for their wings, wants "your prettiest chain to wear," anything to change the space he's in. Anything to get him moving again.
But the songs have a repetition in them that suggest movement without progress. "Refuge 1", which finds Raposa singing "I'm gonna run, I'm gonna run to, I'm gonna run to the City of Refuge," repeats the same cycle of notes over and over again. It plays like the winding of the road at night, inventing itself in the glow of your headlights only to disappear in your wake.
And as we go deeper into City of Refuge, we see things combine and confuse each other. The line between motion and stasis, between being alone and being lonesome, between imagination and reality. "I dreamt I was a savage...today I am a savage," Raposa sings on "Savage", giving away the small surrenders to delusion we can allow ourselves when we stay alone long enough.
The album also moves from yearning and searching to fatigue. When Raposa sings of running to the City of Refuge or, on the brilliant "Shadow Valley" of going with his baby to the city, he sounds beaten down and exhausted. The only thing he wants to do when he gets to the city? "I don't want to fight," he says. That's all. And he seems sadly resigned to the notion that the city will distract them enough to keep from squabbling.
But City of Refuge doesn't fade out with a sleepy whimper. "After the Fall", the album closer and the best of this great collection of songs, assures us Raposa will keep moving. That this time, too, shall pass. The song shows Adam trying to resist watching Eve dress after they've been cast out of the garden. It tells of Joseph being denied by the Innkeeper. Raposa himself looks at a picture, remembers when he and friends all left town for different places, different lives. The song is about the moment right after tragedy, after our fall, when things can't seem to get any worse and we tuck ourselves away from the world. He closes the song with these lines:
Well storms seem to last forever,
and I remember them all,
the only break in the weather
is winter after the fall.
It reads on paper like a painful resignation. But Ray Raposa delivers the lines with a bracing rise in his voice. His time in Overton, the space he's filled with songs on City of Refuge has brought him to a moment of catharsis. Because after the fall things have to get better eventually. We can go to the City of Refuge, but we can't stay there. Eventually, we have to rejoin the world.
There are holes in the story of City of Refuge. Raposa leaves some details out. As listeners, we can never quite figure out what's going on in Overton, what happened that brought Raposa there. But he relates the solitary quiet, the lonesome moments of doubt, beautifully. We may not know exactly what Raposa was going through when he wrote the album, but we know how he felt. And he brings us with him to a time alone in the desert, far the pompous distractions of Las Vegas, to a moment of comfort.
Ray Raposa couldn't stay in the City of Refuge, but he captured the best parts on this album and shared them with us.