Casiotone bears beautiful, lonely Children

Casiotone for the Painfully Alone’s Owen Ashworth gained early recognition for his extreme minimalism. His first album, Answering Machine Music, was spawned from a song recorded on a friend’s answering machine with just a Casiotone keyboard, drum machine and Ashworth’s grumbly vocals.

The moniker was originally a joke, and there were never any long-term plans for recording. Ashworth ended up sticking with the project, though, and is now in his second decade of recording as Casiotone for the Painfully Alone.

Instead of allowing himself to be boxed in by the self-imposed limitations of recording under the Casiotone name, he started expanding his sound with the last album, 2006’s Etiquette, and ultimately takes it further with Vs. Children.

Etiquette was an uneven experiment from someone who was having a hard time throwing out the batteries and unplugging the AC adaptors whereas Vs. Children is the solidification of the metamorphosis, an amalgamation of acoustic and electric, with his lo-fi beginnings cleverly disguised. If he is still using his old bargain bin keyboards, he has done an incredible job of hiding them deep in the mix or dressing them up as something completely different altogether.

With enough imagination, the new songs and instrumentation can be easily interpolated back to his earlier work. The drums sound deceptively live, but after enough listens, it becomes evident that he may simply be improving the quality of his drum machine.

The beats have distanced themselves from the heavy hip-hop sound he used to work with, but the residue is still present. He’s traded in the old synthesizers for ivory and organs, but he’s still playing the keys the same way. The genius of the new direction is that it points out that underneath the distortion and lack of production value of his older work were actual songs.

No one puts on a Casiotone album solely for the music, though. Ashworth’s greatest strength is his way with words. On Vs. Children, he presents tale after tale of melancholy.

There’s the young girl who loses her father to a jellyfish sting (“Man O’ War”), the ex-boyfriend and a recent update on an old love and would-be mother to his would-be child (“Natural Light”) and the successful criminal duo who disband violently after hitting a deer and totaling their getaway car (“Northfield, NM”). All the stories are told in Ashworth’s typical frank delivery, but he thankfully never gives away too much.

Ashworth’s ability to see through the eyes of his characters is also noteworthy. On “Harsh the Herald Angels Sing,” he channels an unwed soon-to-be-mother who is less than excited about the prospect of motherhood. The woman faces judgment from her neighbors and isolation from everyone around her. The moment she begins to accept her pregnancy, Ashworth sings “I guess I just quit drinking / I guess I just quit smoking / Guess I’ll need some names / Alan, William or James / Doctor tell me you’re joking.”

In the end, neither the vocals nor the music would or could survive on their own. Some of the most upbeat work he’s done is on display here, especially with “Optimist….” The barroom piano barrels through the track’s two-minute runtime, accentuated by the sparse drums, culminating with the tune of “When The Saints Go Marching In.”

The lyrical content is also much less depressing than his typical work, telling the story of criminals looking to settle down and start a family.

While the lows are only lifted temporarily and the momentum ultimately wanes, it only gets better. Ashworth works best at a slow burn, and the album’s second half is Exhibit A. He moves from the solemn backing vocals of “Northfield, NM” to the story of a couple contemplating parenthood (“Killers”) played down/up by a simple percussion track and (maybe Casiotone) flute, ending with a take on a line from the chorus of Bowie and Eno’s “Heroes.”

The last three tracks pick up the pace slightly, but still convey the desolation of the rest of the album. The Casiotone may not be such a huge player anymore, but the Painfully Alone are still present and accounted for.