Since the release of 2004’s Cathedral, San Diego’s Castanets have often been included in discussions of the mid-aughts “freak folk” movement that birthed artists such as Animal Collective, Wooden Wand and Phosphorescent. Early albums by Castanets (primarily singer-songwriter Raymond Raposa) were hushed and creepy, “freaky” in their rural boniness. Though Raposa has certainly kept busy with other projects, Decimation Blues (out today on Asthmatic Kitty) is the first proper Castanets album since 2009.
With Decimation Blues, Raposa seems to be working on a similar trajectory to some of his contemporaries. Matthew Houck’s Phosphorescent, for example, used digital loops and samples to arrive at Song For Zula, arguably the band’s best-known song, on 2013’s Muchacho. Asthmatic Kitty labelmate Sufjan Stevens blew up his sound with a veritable electronic cannon on 2010’s towering Age Of Adz. Decimation Blues finds Castanets similarly dancing with electronic textures, but only occasionally does Raposa stick the landing.
On some tracks, Raposa completely forgoes the reverb, distorted tape-loops and whispered songwriting that characterized the first batch of Castanets records. Opening track It’s Good To Touch You In The Sunlight is satisfyingly slinky, and the introduction of sax, synths and harmonies is a beautifully warm change. The album’s penultimate track, Tell Them Memphis, is also quite a stunner. The song finds Raposa liberally applying autotune to his characteristically tender, hesitant vocals, and the result creates a tension that truly packs an emotional wallop.
The gem of the bunch, however, is the mid-album lead single Out For The West. The track is far and away the most successful compromise between Raposa’s songwriting style and his newfound sonic textures. A simple drum machine and tender electronic piano serve as an appropriately delicate backdrop for Raposa’s vocals, stripped entirely of effects. The song places Raposa’s voice at dead-center, an uncommon tactic for this band, and his frank, detail-driven lyrics shine brilliantly: “November 1994/My girl was ten and someone might have been at war/But I don’t know.”
Elsewhere on the album, the cold harshness of electronic over-production is less kind to Castanets. The otherwise delightfully paranoid Be My Eyes is muddied by digital vocal delay and frantic electronic drums. Other electronic explorations such as To Look Over The Grounds and Somewhere In The Blue are similarly forgettable.
But then the album also finds Raposa succeeding, as he typically does, in the more familiar realm of hushed, storied folk. Thunder Bay is another of the album’s true gems, employing crisp, muted electric guitars and once again prudently keeping the vocals at the front of the mix. The song’s melody and lyrics are quintessential tear-stained Americana. Though tastefully augmented by the occasional passing tape hiss, the production allows the track to breathe, and with the songwriting as its focal point, the song is a winner. Later in the album, Pour It Tall And Pour It True is an extremely worthy country drinking song, and its minimal instrumentation and deftly brushed drums suit it well.
Decimation Blues has undeniably strong songs on the more experimental end of the spectrum and undeniably strong songs on the folky end of the spectrum. However, their placement together on one album (alongside a number of less successful songs) results in an extremely uneven listening experience. Although it is certainly a good album, Decimation Blues fails to completely deliver on the promise of Out For The West, and instead exists in a sonic purgatory. It is unable to wholly commit to a new sound and spends half of its running time wrestling uncomfortably with an older sound, long-mastered by this band.