Tuesday 11 July 2023

Retro Review: Casiotone For The Painfully Alone - Pocket Symphonies For Lonesome Subway Cars

I've been waiting to do this one for a while - I've spent a fair bit of time gathering my thoughts, and now feels like a good time to deploy. Today we're talking Casiotone For The Painfully Alone, a project of Owen Ashworth formed in the mid 90s. For the first few releases under the name, Owen implemented an interesting methodology - those of a similar Film Studies background to myself might be familiar with Lars von Trier's Dogme 95, a manifesto focusing on raw filmmaking by purposefully limiting equipment and techniques. CTFPA's first releases follow their own brand of this doctrine, altered to fit audio. They are as follows: short songs, played in C, on the white notes of Casio keyboards.

The end result is a uniquely intimate experience, one I've found myself coming back to over and over again as of late, as someone who has famously been all about high-tech sounds in the past, it's quite the turn. I've found it quite freeing as a whole, given the dismal state of the tech world these days, each there is comfort in the imperfections embraced on CTFPA's work.

We're focusing on the second album today (and my favourite of the early works) - Pocket Symphonies For Lonesome Subway Cars. The opening track is a fine intro to that methodology mentioned above, fully embracing the pre-sets on the Casio which is a trend that will continue, as will the frank lyrical content. We Have Mice isn't quite as lo-fi as some other offerings from the album, but manages to cram quite a lot into a very short runtime. I end up saying this a lot, but if you vibe with this track, go ahead and dive right into the rest of the album and you will not be disappointed.

It was by track 2 that I knew I would be in love with this album - Tonight Was A Disaster dials the melancholy up to max, an instant juxtaposition to the opening track. There are certain lines that come to mind from this album pretty regularly - "And you'll say that it's no big deal, but it's the shake in your voice gives away how you feel" being one of them. Not sure how I feel about the noodling come the halfway point, my mind changes on it pretty regularly, but I absolutely adore the other Casio sounds on show here.

And that's a theme that will repeat also, while there are certain elements that stay the same - you'll continue to hear that preset drumbeat throughout for one - Owen does a fantastic job of getting a lot of variety out of the limiting factors. Suitcase In Hand shows that off in style, backed with some lovely powerful feeling electronics, especially around the 0:56 mark with a sequence that reminds me of Brian Eno's The Big Ship. Equally cathartic are the lyrics: "I'm at the station, the train is leaving at eight / And nothing's gonna make me stay, hey hey. No room for trouble in this old suitcase". The delivery of the lines is always on point, the lyrics themselves might not be the most complex, but the starkness often makes them all the more resonant.

Caltrain Song is a tender, contemplative number that again shows the relative flexibility of the self-imposed limitations of the Casiotone project at this point. The lyrics continue the melancholy trend, this time focusing on the hurt of words. Dying Batteries, the shortest of the bunch at just shy of a minute long, does the same - with an incredibly stripped back production of jabbed keys really selling that mournful atmosphere. Oh, Contessa! feels more like a drunken meander in both lyrics and production, for better or worse.

Bus Song is the first track that comes to mind when I think of this album. Not as bkeak as some of the other offerings here, instead a little emotional vignette of something as simple as missing a bus. Perhaps a little plain lyrically in comparison to some of the more poetic moments on this album, but still home to some beautiful imagey, I love the description of the sky as Blackening Blue. At any rate, the lyrics aren't the highlight here anyway, I just adore the total explosion in sound around the halfway mark as the melody comes in full force - it's like the Casio is being pushed to the redline and is only barely holding together.

The mages from this era are very lo-fi to boot.

From there we hit a little bit of a downturn, Yr Boyfriend feels almost a little immature in comparison, as the title hints at. Another short one, it definitely feels much more like a one take sketch than the tracks before. Which is odd to say given they're all made with that same methodology, but it sticks out s lot here, especially the way it just ends. Casiotone For The Painfully Alone In A Green Cotton Sweater too is a little immature - my impression from the lyrics is that it feels very teen-y, lamenting a summer fling and "No more rides on the handlebars, no more drive-ins in the backseat of your parent's car". Number Ten might be the most experimental of the bunch, but it creeps up on you - it follows the formula we're all used to at this point, but after the delivery of the final lines "Goodbye, Good Luck, Goodbye" we take a turn into the glitchy part of town for the final quarter. It works, but it doesn't half catch me by surpise every now and then.

Destroy The Evidence leads with a charming peak behind the curtain as we hear the Casio start up, then reset and start over again. It has the distinction of being the longest track on the album at 3 minutes and 42 seconds - it certainly makes use of it, after the last of the surprisingly dark at times lyrics, the final minute and a bit is dedicated to one long Casio noodling session. I can see the plasticy sounds being a turn off to some, granted it's not my favourite from the album but I like it well enough.

Lesley Gore On The T.A.M.I. Show offers a very slight change-up in sound, employing some almost string-like sounds while maintaining that artifical nature inherent to the Casio. Oh, Illinois! is the most upbeat track we've heard (or at least since Yr Boyfriend) - fittingly the lyrics read like a letter and have an interesting flow to them, slowing over time, culminating in the final pause on "And I don't... want to start... missing you again". Having an upbeat song with juxtaposed lyrics is a bit of a cliché, but I think this one skirts around that a little - it's an odd mix of ups and downs as our narrator flips between the negative and positive almost every other verse.

The Subway Home might immediately make me recant that though. In terms of lyrics its the most cliché of the bunch here, you can tell when the opening line is "It gets worse before it gets better". Filled with the usual content you'd expect - being broke, having unhealthy sleeping patterns and working crap retail jobs. I don't mean to be too negative mind you, we're in the tail stretch of the album by now for one, and secondly I imagine that the content wasn't *quite* as trite when it originally released in 2001. The endng synth jam on Subway Home is very nice too, big warbling keys that are almost warm to the touch.

Airport Samba brings things back around to the bittersweet - another short window into a moment, this time seeing somone off at the airport. It's concise, by now the formula is distilled, and this track achieves everything it sets out to in that short ~1 minute window. Not bad at all for what is in essence the final track - the final offering is a reprise of We Have Mice but even more lo-fi, extra tinny and with an alternate, almost mumbled vocal it makes the original feel like a fully mastered studio mix by comparison. A nice bonus and not a bad end to the album, but the original is still my favourite.

And that about wraps it up, been a long time since I've done one of these and I kind of dragged my feet a little by my own admission, but it's been fun to revisit. I did find it a little tricky to talk about this album in spots - the stripped down instrumentals make it a little difficult to pick out new elements the furhter in we got for one, and the length was a pretty big factor too as the whole thing clocks in at 34 minutes which is incredibly short for an album. Personally I fel in love with it hard, and I think to an extent that length works in its favor - if you're not a fan of the current track, just wait a minute and a new one will come along. It's readily available from CTFPA's bandcamp, bundled with his first album which also comes with some bonus tracks, if you've liked what you've heard here I'd definitely recommend the package. That about does it for today, I'll be back soon enough with more but until then, as always, stay safe and enjoy the music.