The world is loud. The wind blows hard. We need songs for shelter, and Raymond Raposa can build a shelter from almost anything: the sun-bleached bones of a drum track and a couple spare organ chords; a carpet of creeping synth arpeggios, a scaffolding of multi-tracked harmonies, a few scraps of alto sax to prop up the whole structure. Decimation Blues, Raposa's sixth release as Castanets, marks a decade of scavenger architecture.
Decimation Blues sees Raposa stepping out in front of the hermetic persona he's crafted over ten years. There have always been shards of pop songs glinting in the dark corners of Castanets records. Here we get whole gleaming edifices. Decimation Blues is the music of a man who's learned to live and build among the wreckage - twelve seemingly offhand, secretly meticulous tracks that we can hunker down in. "Still always good to be alone in someone else's home," Raposa sings. He'll lend us his place, or teach us how to fix up our own. Come in out of the rain, put your shoes by the fire. The walls might shake, the wind might howl, but you'll be safe here a while.
With Texas Rose, The Thaw, and The Beasts Castanets' Raymond Raposa keeps one foot in the rustic country, folk, and blues of past records while taking it—everything—to the next level. Straddling the line between “out” and accessible, the Rafter Roberts-produced Texas Rose is a full-band affair, a bent noise-country terrain of dissolving interludes and spaced-out electronic pop tracks up against songs that wouldn't be out of place on a Merle or Willie record. Texas Rose, Raposa's fifth for Asthmatic Kitty, is a statement of stoic subtlety and grandeur, an equal balance of the big and the humble, the disparate and the cohesive. It is nearly 39 minutes of stride-hitting, potential-reaching, and pure big epicness.
Dub Refuge turns a minimalist folk record (Castanets' City of Refuge) into a ghostly dub, subverting dub tradition while still nodding in the direction of King Tubby, Scientist, Burning Spear, and Sly and Robbie. Dub Refuge works because Castanets and Ero Gray (aka Papa Alabaster, sometimes bass player for Castanets, and member of Brooklyn-based Rad Unicorn) are both preoccupied with ghostly, ephemeral and messy sounds. Ero and the Castanets share a haunted quality in their music, a unique dedication to risk, and a reverence for accident in folk music. (Stray string squeaks, cracking voices and odd echoes can be more rewarding than intentional harmonies or suavely competent riffs.)
At it's best, Castanets music accomplishes an eerie and very difficult balancing act between the disaster-surfing of experimental and noise music, and the sort of calm competence shown by classic country singers. The City of Refuge sessions exemplified this balance, and here on Dub Refuge, Ero has emphasized both aspects without destroying either.
Largely recorded in a motel room in Overton, Nevada, City of Refuge is an uneasy, asymmetric weave of sung songs, chants, electronic noise solos and spaghetti-western guitar interludes. City suggests a film soundtrack, with overture, mood-setting and plot-development songs, intermission, character studies, and themes of resolution and reconciliation. A narrative propelled by yearning, passion, dislocation, ambiguity, regret, false redemption, possible true redemption, cryptic symbolism and other art film obligatories, this time you’re liable to sit numb and silent through the credits as the theater empties. The difference between Raposa's landscape and more familiar backlot scenes might be this; you believe what you've heard and seen because your third ear intuits that he didn’t contrive any of it. City, then, is no longer only music, but emotional catharsis, and we, too, long for a City of Refuge.
This video document, created by Mia Ferm, serves as a snapshot of a particular moment in time surrounding Raposa and Castanets. It is a meditative reflection on the mesmerizing motion of water, the beauty of natural light, and the spontaneity of friends. Responding to the thickness of the songs on In The Vines, here the songs are stripped bare and presented by new voices that further reveal the lyrical beauty of Raposa's songwriting. It is equal parts home movie (ala Jonas Mekas), Downtown 81, Pull My Daisy, and audio-visual collage.
Ray Raposa of Castanets had almost finished his follow-up to First Light's Freeze (2005) when three men in strange masks mugged him at gunpoint in front of his home in Bedstuy, Brooklyn. Stealing Raposa's rent money, iPod and security, the three thieves climaxed a year of depression and nomadic, nocturnal dislocation. Not long after the mugging, Raposa completed In The Vines. Appropriately, the album he was struggling to complete is based on a Hindu fable about being trapped in an inescapable fate, with death and the limitations of our physical lives closing in from all corners. In the fable story, “The Well of Life”, a giant net stretched out by a giant woman surrounds a Brahman lost in the forest. The frantic Brahman runs in circles attempting to escape until he falls halfway down a pit and is entangled in vines. He discovers some beehives halfway between the flesh-hungry six-faced elephant at the top of the pit and the waiting serpent at the bottom. As bees buzz around the Brahman and rats gnaw at the vines holding him up, all he can do is gorge on the sweet honey. Heavy stuff, yes, but it isn't all peril, and darkness. The songs are sung with such intimacy and earnestness that In The Vines "sways" somewhere between the serpent, elephant, bees and rats, the honey representing a strange sense of hope and delight in the brief moments of beauty that sustain our lives.
With First Light's Freeze, Castanets return with a dark mutant-country sound infused with strands of free-jazz and a late-seventies Nashville big-radio strut hijacked by post-post-punk unravelers. The result is a beautiful mix of somber reflection, destination-unknown travelogue, and subversive anti-war boogie. Castanets' unrelenting creative pioneering delightfully befuddles, as they simultaneously honor and dismantle “New Americana”.
While Cathedral (Castanets' debut) explored the themes of domesticity and the architecture of conflict, First Light's Freeze confronts the mythology of war and friendship. Morphed from a strictly literal and chronological song-cycle to a more broadly sketched reading, the wraith of narrative structure still lurks in the shadows, creating an eerie tale with shifting perspectives and evading resolution. The story ends up resembling an ancient documentary on relationships (others loved, feared, distrusted yet needed), the close proximity of things painful and pleasurable, and the complications of this as a paradigm for the world.
Cathedral, the first nationally released album by San Diego's Castanets, introduces a unique new voice of avant-country. From somber love ballads to haunted tales of frustrated redemption, Cathedral illuminates architecture where faith and doubt clash in an often ambiguous search for the divine.