Everything I’ve read about Castanets’ first album, 2004’s Cathedral, seemed to treat it as if it were some lost indie masterpiece, a visionary anti-folk song-cycle dripping with meaning and authentic feeling. One online publication raved that it’s “best suited to awkward late-night consumption, to be devoured while hiding under the sheets, clutching a flashlight, breathing heavy and deep.” Whatever. I thought it sucked: drab, morose, too obscure for its own good and, above all else, check-your-watch dull. Perhaps my failure to grasp the brilliance of Castanets is my own fault; maybe if I hadn’t murdered my brain with Bud and cough syrup back in high school, I would have been able to pick up on the “startlingly real” genius hidden within Cathedral’s groove-less twaddle and dopey lyrics. Who knows, who knows? Regrets, I’ve had a few.
Some hack interviewer once asked Ray Raposa, the main man behind San Diego’s Castanets -who shares some real estate on Sufjan Stevens’s Asthmatic Kitty label – which of Cathedral’s songs were most fun to play live. “None of them,” he replied. “They’re inherently not fun songs.” Which I guess is a dandy sales pitch geared toward all those flashlight-wielding heavy breathers out there, but to me that comment was a Texas-sized red flag. No fun to perform equals no fun to listen to. (Before you hit me with the old saw “But it’s art, it don’t have to be fun,” let me ask you this: Think of your five, ten, or seventy-two favorite albums of all time. Aren’t they all fun to listen to, every one?)
I haven’t read any interviews regarding First Light’s Freeze yet, but I’d imagine that if confronted with the aforementioned query, Raposa would say, “Why yes, some of the songs are actually fun to play this time around. See, I’ve juiced the tempos a bit on this album, and made sure the tunes were a bit spryer, too. I mean, nothing I ever do will be fun-fun-fun-till-her-daddy-takes-the-et-cetera. But I’ve at least learned to take advantage of all of my musician buddies who play on this album – fifteen at last count – and finally slipped the drummer one, Cornershop-style. As in, we wrote in some rhythms this time.”
Indeed. “No Voice Was Raised” is the best song here, marching along all catchy-like until being enveloped in an awesome wall of squeal and skronk, and “Good Friend Yr Hunger” boasts the most instantly appealing melody Raposa’s yet written – spry, like I said before. Elsewhere there’s some neat lo-fi soundscapery that almost made me wanna reach for my flashlight. But the rest of the album is a real snooze musically, and goddamn it, the lyrics (and vocals) still irk me like crazy. Raposa is a relentless obscurantist, so he’ll always have his share of admirers giving his, uh, genius the benefit of the doubt. The rest of us will just continue to pipe Justified through our headphones and hope the next J.T. album is half as good. “Rock Your Body” – now that’s my idea of art.
All That I Know” MP3: http://www.asthmatickitty.com/mp3/Castanets_-_FLF_-_All_That_I_Know.mp3
Castanets on Asthmatic Kitty’s Web site: http://www.asthmatickitty.com/musicians.php?artistID=2