It might not come as a surprise that former Casiotone For The Painfully Alone front-bummer Owen Ashworth’s Chicago apartment studio shares its name with a bleak man cave. Advance Base, now also the name of Ashworth’s new project with Jody Weinmann, Edward Crouse and Nick Ammerman, was “the name of [an] outpost in Antarctica where [explorer Richard E.] Byrd lived alone for five terrible months in 1934,” Ashworth said of his studio’s namesake. Ashworth’s time in his own fortress of solitude has definitely exceeded five months—in the decade from ’99 to ’09 he released five LPs under the Casiotone banner, three compilations including the eclectic, electric parade Advance Base Battery Life and no short order of EPs, splits and singles—and if any of that time has been “terrible” then Ashworth is doing a fine job faking a deep and savvy love for musical narrative.
The same environmental and emotional limitations that defined Casiotone’s minimalistic melodies resonate through Advance Base’s terse and pithy debut, A Shut-In’s Prayer, just with different equipment (Rhodes instead of Casio) and an even more cohesive aesthetic. Where Casiotone albums like Advance Base Battery Life could be at times vibrant and even goofy explorations of all of the paints in Ashworth’s closet, A Shut-In’s Prayer plays with a purposefully limited palette of blue and grey watercolors. Reflective Rhodes chords bleed slowly through clean backdrops, strolling past drum machine snares and, most importantly, Ashworth’s blunt, detailed lyrics about bygone days of youth.
The overwhelming lyrical themes on A Shut-In’s Prayer are loss and memory. “Christmas In Oakland,” a numb winter waltz given a little cathedral flair in the form of its concluding harmony, remembers a brazen lack of holiday spirit in Cali and why the lust-lorn narrator didn’t care. Album opener “Summer Music” laments a lost lover and the music that the narrator will never be able to dissociate from those breakup wounds. “Riot Grrrls,” the most memorable narrative on the album, is a self-made outcast’s fond remembrance of her former bestie who eventually “went crazy…got fired…moved home.” Now grown with kids of her own, the narrator still thinks back on those aimless after-school days driving around “in my father’s Taurus/Singing along with the tapes she made us” as the best times of her life. It’s a resonant, painful little ode to vanished youth that communicates a lot in two simple verses.
Brevity is key to Ashworth’s music as its inherent limitations can so easily turn monochromatic, which is the case with late track “Goldfish In A Robin’s Nest.” But in a sparse 34 minutes, A Shut-In’s Prayer switches tracks, tempos and narrators often enough to feel relatively fresh from start to finish. Short and bittersweet, this album is the soundtrack to a grainy film of the everyman’s nostalgia-warped past.