First impressions are killer. They can stop you from getting a job, ruin your chances of getting a second date, or turn potential friends into potential enemies. While listening to Casiotone For The Painfully Alone’s fourth album, Etiquette, it seems like all three possibilities might have happened to singer and producer Owen Ashworth. And it seems like it hurt. A lot.
Going on your first impression, Etiquette may sound like bits and pieces of a fiction writer’s journal of ideas grumbled out over Casio keys and bedroom beats. But if you give it time, it will grow; pretty soon you will realise the world really is a dreary place, nothing’s ever certain, and heartbreak is inevitable. And if you happen to fall in the same bracket as Ashworth’s characters (recent college graduates going through a quarter-life crisis), you get the added bonus of realising that there are others out there that don’t understand what’s going on around them or what to do next.
This sense of identification through the narratives is what saves Etiquette from lo-fi persecution. Think about it. Would characters suffering from such malaise have the energy and dedication to sit down and program beats like Danger Mouse or lucious sounds and samples like The Postal Service? But arguing about the sonic quality of the lo-fi movement is about as productive as arguing about religion or politics on the internet, isn’t it?
So we’re back to the narratives of the songs – the charming vignettes of urban loneliness. There’s a young man moving back in with his parents after failing to make it on his own in Bobby Malone Moves Home; there’s a young woman who never found love in I Love Creedence; and there are stories of the lurid morning after in New Year’s Kiss and Don’t They Have Payphones Wherever You Were Last Night. Much of this narrative grief is reminiscent of John Darnielle’s songwriting efforts in The Mountain Goats, although Ashworth’s vocal delivery on Etiquette more closely resembles the slovenly baritone splendour of Arab Strap‘s Aidan Moffat than the nasal twangs of Darnielle.
In addition to Ashworth’s singing, there is a change of pace in the middle section of Etiquette where guest vocalists Jenn Herbinson and Katy Davidson take the helm. Scattered Pearls and Holly Hobby provide a refreshing relief from Ashworth’s doom and gloom but are still ridden with canned beats and cheap-sounding keyboards. Sam Mickens’ sole song offering, Happy Mother’s Day, sees only woodwind accompaniment but suffers from its own novelty. The terse retelling of a failed effort to make a Mother’s Day special, this song adds nothing to the record, especially as short as it is (47 seconds).
Lo-fi recordings will continue to exist in the face of constantly developing recording techniques (perhaps in spite of them). And in Casiotone For The Painfully Alone’s defence, Etiquette does seem to be a big step forward compared to previous albums, including Casiotone’s debut, Answering Machine Music: A Brief Album In Twelve Parts, which has vocals that may very well have been recorded on an answering machine. And if they can get past the lo-fi sound, Owen Ashworth’s charm may yet have some lasting value in the hearts of confused, directionless twenty-somethings everywhere.