10 July 2006

Casiotone for the Painfully Alone

I've undergone so far this year several desperate bouts of binge listening, and I've survived each in due course: Ryan Adams' early stuff; Boredoms; Bobby Digital (a quite poignant case of near-terminal mania); New Pornographers; Deerhoof; T.I.'s "What You Know"; Belle & Sebastian's Dear Catastrophe Waitress; and several others. I've spent hours and hours of listening, and were they cassettes or LPs my .m4a's would surely have worn out.

My most recent bout marks the midway point of the year so I thought it appropriate to comment. Casiotone for the Painfully Alone is pretty much the greatest music ever made right now. Just about every bio of the band mentions that it's a single man, Owen Ashworth, who is an American film school drop-out. (His being a dropout seems to be a point of pride. But not like Kanye West, I think. Once at a school where I worked I saw a teacher or hall monitor wearing this tshirt that said, 'Kanye was right'. I asked her if what her shirt meant was that he was right about how you shouldn't go to college and that college degrees are worthless [see the Lil Jimmy skit of College Dropout]. She got pretty mad and said, No, my shirt refers to Kanye saying George Bush doesn't care about black people. Well, I still don't think K. West is that great of a role model. But Messr. Ashworth probably isn't either: So maybe the two aren't so different.)

Casiotone, as the name implies, is a guy and some Casio keyboards--that's it. It's a musical act with a premise, not unlike Spinal Tap. The latest album, Etiquette, breaks ranks with the Casio minimalism to great effect. There are some good songs: first single, "Young Shields" and "Cold White Christmas" give an overall impression. (For my money, I like the opener, "New Year's Kiss"
not the way that you'd imagined it
on a balcony with champagne lips
but in a pantry against the pancake mix
you had your New Year's kiss
which offers such kind of droll yet bored-sounding observations you'd except from a band with the name Casiotone for the Painfully Alone.) Pitchfork picked it as one of its favorite mid-year albums, which is how I learned of it. They roughly called it music about being in your middle-20s. No one really cares about such shallow problems, but they still seem important. I kind of thought that's how everyone regarded everyone's problems (other's are shallow, mine are important). (That's not to say pfork is wrong.)

Etiquette doesn't put anything in perspective; it wallows in despair. The juxtaposition of Casio beats and Bright Eyes-type lyrics creates an effect not unlike the one created by Wesley Willis, the Birdman-fighting, McDonald's rockin' schizo from Chicago. Keeping in mind one's context is difficult. Regarding another person's context is what creates the effect of something like art. Willis was absurd prima facie based on his music. Add to that his schizophrenia and probable homelessness and you realized that there was something equal parts sad and hilarious before your regard.

Casiotone creates a pretty similar effect in this way. The lyrics are sad and pathetic, the beats are pretty catchy (or sludgy; you might regard the sludgy as the catchy); but the overall effect is one of creating in the listener a sense of heroic relief. It's like talking to a very upset, word-slurring someone in a bar: You are the shoulder on which he cries, and you thereby feel better about your life. You empathize with his situation and it gives you perspective on your own. If your best friend happens to be the girl with whom you're in love; and if she happens to fall in love with someone else; well, that happens to a lot of people. You'll probably laugh about it later. (But at the time, of course, your heart is broken.)

The guy's voice is really great, too.