Casiotone for the Painfully Alone
The rinky-tinky toybox hum of the keyboards from whence Owen Ashworth coined the name of his band are gone. Face facts. The expanding sonic vistas Ashworth avails himself of on this new album — be it a live band (the Donkeys), or organ, mellotron, piano — are a clear signal of Ashworth’s speedily developing compositional chops, all in the service of simple elegant pop. But that’s not even the real story here. Vs. Children ain’t all about the timbre and creation of sound.
No, the real story, and I can’t believe I’m saying this shit, is the lyrics! It’s funny that Ashworth repackaged two Springsteen covers on his singles collection Advance Base Battery Life earlier this year, because he seems to be a student of the Boss in presenting this vivid portrait of losers trying to make a last go before some small-town swallows them up, or somesuch. Though Ashworth’s narratives are more exotic than some of the Springsteen’s teenage hard luck tales, these small vignettes don’t overstay their welcome, and make you feel a little more alive after each listening.
“Tom Justice, the Choir Boy Robber” is a lullaby to a criminal, augmented by ringing piano that reminds me of Dr. Dre’s “California Love” and a one-finger organ solo towards the end that sounds like the one in “96 Tears,” and it’s just beautiful. “Optimist Vs. The Silent Alarm,” before fading into a coda of “When The Saints Go Marching In,” is a chirpy, barrel house piano-led monologue from one lover to another, trying to convince her to rob a bank with him. He’s rhapsodizing about their escape plans and how they’ll spend their money, and you just get the feeling that everyone involved knows it’s never going to work. “Traveling Salesman’s Young Wife Home Alone On…” is another upbeat, ragtimey arrangement masking a tale of quiet desperation — a young wife’s lonely holiday blues as her traveling salesman husband (“static filtering down pay phones on the road” is a particularly lovely line) bunks down in some hotel somewhere in the middle of nowhere.
“Man O’ War” is a woozy synth drone and clockwork drum machine bed on which Ashworth and duet partner Julie Lispector harmonize about jellyfish stinging and a woman’s luckless love life. The understated, hushed “Killers” is, to this reviewer, the conceptual masterpiece of the album. Damn near made me drive off the road when I first heard it. Over childlike Eno minimalism, Ashworth takes the character of a boyfriend/husband shocked (the first lyric is a mumbled “Oh my god”) to learn that his wife is pregnant, and unsure if they have the resources to take care of the child. His shock turns to support and comfort but then to stark realism as he broaches the idea of terminating the pregnancy and the song ends with a foreboding snatch of paraphrased Bowie, “We can be killers/Just for one night.” “White Jetta” rides along on a chiming allllllllmost hip-hop groove and is a 21st Century retelling of Morrissey’s “Ordinary Boys” but richer in the details of suburban American life that are mundane and poetic at the same time (“Boombox in the backseat/Blasting Misfits all up and down the street/they stay the same/they never change”). Yeah, here’s to change.