Owen Ashworth returns as Casiotone For The Painfully Alone on Vs Children, another collection of slow-burning lo-fi tunes that trudge through the muck of interpersonal relationships, family troubles, and modern city living.
2006’s Etiquette found Ashworth moving toward a warmer sound with more live instrumentation and more fidelity than earlier recordings. Vs Children takes things a tiny step further, replacing sullen drones with a bouncy keyboard every once in a while.
Optimist Vs The Silent Alarm (When The Saints Go Marching In), with bright keys and a lively beat, cuts through the sullen atmosphere set up by preceding track Tom Justice, The Choir Boy Robber, Apprehended At Ace Hardware In Libertyville, IL. But the poppy bounce of Optimist only lasts a couple of minutes, and the emotional gloom soon sets in again with the opening reverberations of the lonely keyboards on Natural Light.
Even though the storytelling is the main focus of this music, Ashworth incorporates a quaint charm in his minimalistic tracks. He eschews the conventional chorus in favour of long, conversational sections split up by musical interludes. For example, Northfield, MN takes nearly a minute to build the atmosphere with a plodding beat, sharp keyboard strikes and ghostly backing vocals.
Then Ashworth begins spinning a tale of a commuting couple, but interrupts his story immediately after the line, “You were on your way back to Wisconsin, hit a deer and flipped.” A musical interlude allows the listener to experience the weight of the car crash before re-entering the narrative.
Ashworth mixes singing with speaking like Craig Finn of The Hold Steady and Eddie Argos of Art Brut. But the melodies are effective, even in the drunken slurs of Tom Justice and the whispered lines of Man O’ War, where the normal standards of singing break down.
He doesn’t try to stay on pitch. He doesn’t have a strong, confident tone with a lot of air support. Instead, he slinks by with muttered observations, like he’s retelling these stories over and over again across a long night of drinking.
Casiotone For The Painfully Alone’s approach to beat-making and instrumentation allows the listener to pass through the music and focus on Ashworth’s words. There aren’t any quick changes, and there are only a few swells in the music. Like John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats, Ashworth wants you to focus on the stories.
Killers slowly reveals itself as a dialogue between a couple. They’re discussing the possibility of having children, and, eventually, the reality of abortion. Natural Light sees someone trying to rekindle a flame. But instead of meeting his former girlfriend, he stirs up a world of past emotions. Some song titles say it all in the title: Traveling Salesman’s Young Wife Home Alone On Christmas In Montpelier, VT.
It seems like Owen Ashworth could have been a poet, short fiction writer, or musician. His craft here does have more to do with storytelling than it does with music making, but these haunting, desolate narratives are very much complemented by the lo-fi, repetitive, yet meditative backing tracks, which are ultimately presented like the lost soundtrack to a movie.