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Casiotone for the Painfully Alone - Etiquette

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Artist: Casiotone for the Painfully Alone

Album: Etiquette

Label: Tomlab

Review date: May. 14, 2006

Owen Ashworth, like John Darnielle or Stephin Merritt in his early days, writes songs where the lyrics matter a lot more than the music. Ashworth doesn’t try to be as clever as Darnielle, and he doesn’t have Merritt’s romantic ease. Like both of them, however, his project makes the most of a limited set of musical resources. Indeed, a limited set of musical resources seems to be a means to an end for Ashworth; these are average people’s tales of heartbreak and woe, and it makes sense to set them to music whose origins are equally average. Hence, the prominent use (even on Etiquette, Ashworth’s first studio album) of battery-powered electronics and pre-programmed beats.

Listeners should know beforehand that Ashworth was a film student before he was a musician. Like a good screenwriter, Ashworth’s songs are fairly coherent character studies and narratives; like an independent filmmaker, he’s fascinated by the travails of young urbanites. Although each song involves a new protagonist, Etiquette covers a pretty small demographic: college graduates, living in the big city. The first song, “New Year’s Kiss,” is about a girl’s attempts to reconstruct what happened on a disappointing New Year’s Eve. “Young Shields” frames one person’s musings about youth and insecurity with a series of appeals for money from mom and dad. “I Love You Creedence” is the sad tale of a girl who moves to Philadelphia with her best friend and is left on her own when her friend meets and then moves in with a guy from New Jersey. The subject of “Nashville Parthenon” pleads for a friend to move back to, yes, Nashville. “Cold White Christmas” is set in St. Paul, and is about a recent college graduate… you get the idea. To keep some of these songs from running together, Ashworth also throws in the occasional allegory as a change of pace, such as the story in “Grandmother’s Pearls” about losing a family heirloom in a nightclub.

Etiquette was the Casiotone For the Painfully Alone album recorded in a studio, with production help from Jherek Bischoff from the Dead Science and Jason Quever from the Papercuts. Generally, Ashworth has a way of using the production to underline, and not to drown out, the details in his lyrics. So, for instance, we get a pedal steel guitar break in “Nashville Parthenon,” while “Young Shields” has a dark, euro-dance production. It’s a judicious use of resources, since his greatest strength as a songwriter is the realism with which he tells each story. Too much production, and he risks falsely aggrandizing his characters.

How you’ll come down on Etiquette depends, I suppose, on how interested you are in the tales of sad-sack twentysomethings. It has some startling moments – if we’re making Merritt analogies, “Holly Hobby” would be “100,000 Fireflies.” But Etiquette is an album designed for those times when one’s feeling reflective, or even a little bit downbeat; the band is Casiotone For the Painfully Alone, and that seems to be a case of truth in advertising.

By Tom Zimpleman

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