Casiotone for the Painfully Alone
Advance Base Battery Life
Though possessed of a name that might cause even Ian Curtis to wince and say, “No really, I’m doing fine,” while putting on a Weird Al Yankovic song, Casiotone for the Painfully Alone is not a suicidal Ramada Inn lounge act. Casiotone for the Painfully Alone is Chicago’s Owen Ashworth, who specializes in a line of wry and melancholy lo-fi electro-chamber-pop that’s all clicks and pops, heartbeats, cheapo keyboards and plaintive toy pianos. It’s fucking charming; whereas Dan Deacon bludgeons you over the head while wearing oversize googly eye sunglasses and yelling, “Where’s the Beef,” over and over again, Ashworth is content to doodle out Wire-quick static-y kitchen sink dramas.
Ashworth updates the working methods of lo-fi flaneurs like John Darnielle and Lou Barlow to include all manner of cheapie keyboards, arrhythmic drum machines, and microphones haphazardly hooked up to effects pedals — it all seems really analogue and hands-on, you can imagine chords being plucked, dials being turned, keys being pressed. However, his sonic palette, compositional chops and just plain songsmithy imagination has been expanding over the years — a fact beguilingly borne out by this collection of 7-inch singles and compilation tracks from 2004-2007. The original material is an entertaining grab-bag of tiny pop minuets, one-off experiments, tuneful haiku-like musings and story-songs with only the barest of instrumentation. The ghostly one-note organ wheeze and Morrissey-meets-Springsteen lament of the 46-second “The Only Way To Cry” still enchants me. “Lesley Gore on the TAMI Sho (version)” with a skinned-knees/Tina Fey-as-chanteuse turn by Jenny Herbinson is a deliciously heartbroken lyric, paired with a sneakily chirpy skating-rink new wave ticktock. “Sunday Or” is so fucking beautifully bruised yet triumphant — with a frustrated and insistent drum machine click and an overloaded synth wash that sounds like a chorus of robot insects harmonizing along along with a touching tersely-delivered vocal that makes you so sad when he just keeps saying “Sunday Street” over and over again, just to shut out whatever else he’s feeling.
A judiciously chosen selection of covers — a fairly ludicrous downbeat version of “Hot Boyz” with a vocal assist from Dear Nora, Paul Simon’s “Graceland” recast as simmering torch-drone (don’t fret man, it really works), and two Bruuuuuuuuuce Springsteen tunes done with verve and bareheaded earnestness. There’s a rickety, cybernetic “Born in the USA” and the very gutsy choice to cover soundtrack tune “Philadelphia.” Ashworth deftly teases out all of the epic sadness and defeat of Springsteen’s song — just in miniature. Gorgeous, like a ship in a bottle.