25 Nov 2010

One Saved Message: On the Retirement of Casiotone for the Painfully Alone

Casiotone for the Painfully Alone/Munch Munch - 14th November - The Haymakers, Cambridge

Back in September, Owen Ashworth announced his decision to retire Casiotone for the Painfully Alone and move on to new projects and monikers. As much as I always admire a musician who has enough sense of integrity and focus of intention to divide their creative career into distinct projects, this is still a sad event. With CFTPA, Ashworth explored the unique pathos of lo-fi electronics, and throughout the last thirteen years, he has remained fixed on this powerful aesthetic.

CFTPA's first album bore the title Answering Machine Music - a reel of tinny confessions backed by unpretentious bleeps and beats - and this title would just as fittingly apply to any of Ashworth's recordings. The electronic sounds that he worked with were the sounds of everyday: PA announcements, doorbells, car radios, and particularly phone calls, voice mail and answering machines. They were the indistinct, processed channels of communication across great distances, instruments of bad news, apologies, heavy silences. For this reason, CFTPA made music that was more human than any other electronic music, more human in fact than most other pop music - a kind of honest, naturalistic urban folk. Most of his lyrics could easily be heard as phone messages - that unique form of address, direct and personal soliloquies, semi-formal but hinting at whole, hidden worlds of emotion.* He regularly employs first names, advising or comforting or gently berating. His singing voice, though perfect, remains only one step from speech. And around this, the music functions as something impersonal - a frame, not so much uncaring as unchanging. It is the combination of this simple, humble music with lyrics that are so often about change or indecision, that evokes the particular sadness of a phone call: an object, blank and neutral, and a long way through it, the familiarity of a voice unseen, and a whole physical and emotional world just hinted at, reconstructed in memories.

Like phone calls from home, CFTPA's songs are little pockets of warmth in the coldness. On Etiquette in particular, Ashworth explores the scenario of leaving home, and the sudden loneliness that this can bring. The characters on his latest album, Vs. Children, may be slightly older, but they are no less lonely. What affects me most about his lyrics is that, unlike the songs about childhood or some endless, invented adolescence that many indie artists exclusively produce, he describes young adulthood in all its immense difficulty, and in doing so he does provide some comfort - after all, it is 'Casiotone for the Painfully Alone', not just 'of or by the Painfully Alone'. Songs like 'Cold White Christmas', 'Roberta C.' and 'Nashville Parthenon' are rays of light in the darkness. However, the real sadness of his music comes from how far away it all is; the buzz and crunch of the keyboards and drum machines connote distance. When the song stops, we'll be alone again.

My favourite CFTPA song represents, for me, a whole new level of pathos. 'Scattered Pearls', on Etiquette, perfectly evokes a moment between childhood and adulthood - an awareness of personal weakness and, what is always heartbreaking, the vulnerability of one's parents. Again, it could be a phone call, from a girl to her 'mom', an apology: 'The clasp broke at the disco, Mom, I'm sorry...', '...we searched the best we could...', '...but we only found seven of Grandmother's pearls'. Meanwhile the music of the 'disco' continues oblivious; it's the kind of small tragedy that can haunt a lifetime.

Owen's announcement galvanised me to go and see him on his last tour. Seeing CFTPA live, presumably for the last time, I was forced to consider yet another one-person stage set-up, with the same array of pre-recorded tracks that I've criticised in other posts. But do I forgive him this? Of course, of course of course, how could it possibly be any different? And, to be fair, his performance technique wasn't just the hitting of laptop keys; he lovingly constructed his tracks convincingly from a range of instruments before him, while delivering his lyrics glassy-eyed into the nothingness of the crowd. From the nature of his particular aesthetic, his was never going to be the most spectacular live show - his are songs that mean more on record than live. Judging by the slow but steady progression away from lo-fi purism between his first and last albums, I would guess that Ashworth's new projects may expand upon (or completely overturn) this aesthetic. Maybe he'll even get a few more people up onstage. I'm just glad that Casiotone for the Painfully Alone stayed true to their name throughout their existence, and wrung all the beauty out of a very unique concept before making any great stylistic leaps.

* This is just what Ben Gibbard, possibly unadvisedly, goes to great lengths to avoid when, on The Postal Service's 'Such Great Heights', he decides against 'leav(ing) this all on your machine' because 'the persistent beat, it sounded thin upon listening'.