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Saturday, December 20, 2014 
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Casiotone For The Painfully Alone
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Etiquette
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On the night of my 25th birthday, my roommate Angela and I got all dressed up and went to the Limelight, just the two of us, since we were between boyfriends at the time. (As it happened, we would marry the next ones, both of us, but there was no way to know that at the time.) Anyway, we had barely got inside the door when a stranger turned around and threw up all over my favorite blue mini-dress. The line for the bathroom was quite long, and no one could be bothered to let a person with vomit sticking to them slip in ahead, though several people did turn away in disgust and hold their noses. We left shortly after, $40 poorer and 20 minutes older and vowing, at least in my case, to focus on my career and forget about meeting men for a while.

I tell this story not for sympathy or in a belated attempt to get my $20 back (hah!), but to illustrate something that Owen Ashworth of Casiotone for the Painfully Alone does far more artfully on his fourth album, Etiquette. That is that one's mid-20s are easy to romanticize, especially once you've crossed over to more adult things like mortgage payments and preschool applications. Still, they're often painful, uncertain, studded with moments of agony and humiliation... and really only funny in retrospect.

Ashworth's latest limns the detritus of romantic relationships — trash-blown morning walks home from pointless dalliances, kisses exchanged in kitchen pantries, grass-stained sex that may or may not have turned violent, hours of waiting for phone calls from people who don't bother to make contact. Like previous albums, this one is full of sharp, sudden observations, rueful admissions of failure and surprising sweetness. The lyrics feel very personal, until you realize that more than half of them are from a girl's perspective, delicately drawn and very perceptive in their gender-crossing sympathy.

Unlike past efforts, Etiquette is more richly instrumented, drum machine and Casiotone supplemented by real instruments and other singers. There's a wonderful pedal-steel interval in "Nashville Parthenon," for instance, and the four songs sung by Katy Davidson add a whole other girl-friendly dimension to the album. Her willfully cheerful delivery of the sad "Scattered Pearls" is a CD highlight, adding the same lightness and pop qualities that Claudia Gonson brings to Magnetic Fields.

The album starts with sparse intensity, canned drum thwacks and jingling tambourine turned mournful under a series of repeated piano notes in "New Year's Kiss." The song takes us footstep by footstep home, as a young girl wanders back the morning after a New Year's Eve hook-up. The song is desolately matter-of-fact but empathetic, acknowledging disillusioned mornings after in a killer closing line "Not the way that you imagined it/ On a balcony with champagne lips/ But in a pantry 'gainst the pancake mix/ You had your New Year's kiss." Denser, more driving, but just as heartbreaking is "Shields," whose disco-beat and melancholy synths might remind you of Pet Shop Boys, but whose lyrics evoke the dead-endedness of 20-something existence.

The mid-20s are a period when even friends forever have a tendency to disappear, into long-term relationships ("Creedence Clearwater") or off to real jobs in other cities ("Nashville Parthenon"). Ashworth gets the slacker's anguish exactly right, jealous and mournful and also somehow superior for having hung on to post-adolescence a little longer than one's friends.

It's not always clear how much "I" is in these songs, whether they're snapshots from Ashworth's life or fictional stories about imaginary characters. What's impressive, though, is how well he gets into the heads of his female protagonists, real or imagined, in songs like "Scattered Pearls" and "New Year's Kiss" and, especially, "Love Connection." This latter song, which closes the album, tells the story of a young girl whose make-out session on the grass ends in uncertainty and maybe rape ("Some hours lost/ And at such a cost/ Stains and scars I can't explain.") Here a young girl caught in a rough-ish sexual situation casually observes that she'll start watching her weight again — a observation of the links between body image, sex and self-regard so deft that it's hard believe a guy came up with it.

There's even a nightclub horror story marginally worse than mine on Etiquette. In "Scattered Pearls," the string breaks and heirloom jewelry is strewn onto a disco floor, mostly never to be recovered. "And as we rode the bus home I thought surely/ I'd wake up tomorrow just to find that I'd dreamt up everything/ There'd still be pearls on a string/ I wouldn't smell like smoke/ And I'd still have the cash I spent on drinks," Davidson sings. And I remember exactly how that girl feels.


by Jennifer Kelly




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