he 21st century is forcing the "I dig anything but country" music-listeners to reconsider their biases. Headed by the works of Will Oldham, Grey Delisle, and My Morning Jacket, this millennium has given way to several notable country western-tinged albums that even the stingiest of Diesel-over-River Canyon Blues wearers can enjoy.
The distaste for contemporary country is mostly understandable given the genre has been represented by dramatic Ford Country commercials and the pre-pubescent Billy Gillman. But the same injustice occurs when people place the face of modern country as Travis Tritt and Garth Brooks, as when people view Jet as the archetype of indie rock. We need to look past the figureheads of the genre, and focus on brilliant outliers. Musical karma will surely take its course on the questionably popular country acts and they will soon find themselves signing contracts with southern buffet/entertainment establishments in Branson, MO.
The Castanets debut release continues the burgeoning value of the genre amongst the indie music crowd. In a tidy 32-minute avant-country album, the band practices an impressive instrumental restraint. No epic Telecaster solos or intricate classical finger-picking are to be found here. Instead, the Castanets piece together simplistic instrumental parts into a gorgeous uniformed whole. This distancing from complexity allows each instrument to breathe and shine. Sustaining organ chords, root note bass playing, subdued acoustic strumming and simple drumming all co-exist as separate entities in 11 songs that still figure as beautiful, unified bodies of sound.
Though the band utilizes simplistic instrumentation, the Castanets' musicianship is never in question. It’s music that can be compared to that of modernist writer Sherwood Anderson—he had the creativity, vocabulary and moxie to create writing and language of fantastic grandiose, but he opted to write with a clear, straightforward voice. Within Cathedral, we get glimpses of the band's unexploited musical aptitude—the percussion ranges from crisp to rickety and gives clear evidence that the drummer can bang like a beast, impressive lead and slide guitar make occasional appearances and the production and programming tricks demonstrated throughout the album clearly enforce the band’s ability.
Anderson wished to speak with a simple voice and use directness of style to ensure the emphasis was not on his writing prowess but his message. Similarly, the Castanets careful instrumentation allows the listener to focus on the thoughtful deliveries from lead vocalist, Raymond Raposa, whose buttery smooth vocals give way to an occasional snarl, but more usually deal in calm beauty. When coupled with the back-up vocals of Bridgit DeCook, the Castanets pull off harmonies similar to, and perhaps exceeding, the beauty of the Phil Elvrum and Mirah tag team. "Three Days, Four Nights" begins with Reposa and DeCook weaving their voices through a minor key, accompanied only by soft acoustic strumming. As the track continues, subtle slide guitar and blasts of harmonica and electric guitar enter the fray, swallowing the song's vacancy with a remarkably haunting musical montage. It is one of the many tracks on the album that expertly combine voice and music into ingenious bodies of sound.
"You are the Blood", for example, has even more extraordinary harmonies tiptoeing through watery piano, unidentifiable horn figures and occasional guitar strums; "As You Do", which takes a break from the haunting intensity of most of the album, swells with sweet balladry under major-keyed acoustic strumming, Moogish synthesizer and piano clinks and the opening track, "Cathedral 2 (Your Feet On the Floor Sounding Like Rain)", which churns an organ over a distant layer of windy programming and clanking percussion in an arrangement that recalls Xiu Xiu's Knife Play.
Like Jamie Stewart, the Castanets pay an extreme attention to detail. Each instrument serves a distinct purpose for the song and each song serves a distinct purpose for the album. And much like Stewart, the group refigures a genre of music, teaching you to fall in love with it all over again—or, at the least, giving you hope that it isn’t all bad after all.
Reviewed by: Kyle McConaghy
Reviewed on: 2004-10-29