The Multifaceted Castanets
By David Barratt
September 25, 2009
Ray Raposa is an enigma. He's pretty prolific and seems to enjoy hanging out with the whole Asthmatic Kitty (the label started by Sufjan Stevens) crew—that's his label, after all, and label-mate Rafter has produced most of his albums. And for all intents and purposes, he seems like he's a nice guy who writes and releases quiet albums pretty regularly.
But he's also one of those bearded troubadours who takes plenty of risks, in his lyrics and music, but also in his recording process. His blend of folk, electronica and atonal discord makes him an artist with a strong avant-garde bent. And all of this might make you think he's part of the burgeoning "freak-folk" scene (which includes Devendra Banhart and Joanna Newsom) ... but don't tell him that. "I abhor [that label]," Raposa says. "[There's] no place for it."
And he's right. It's a lazy qualifier to apply to artists who don't make music that fits into the simpler categories of "indie" or "folk" or even "psych." And on his newest release as the Castanets, Texas Rose, the Thaw & the Beasts, he's terribly difficult to pin down yet again. There's plenty of folk, but there are also bursts of musical discordance and even a song that sounds like ... Kate Bush.
The folk strains have been running through the music of the Castanets since their debut, Cathedral. The common, distinctly American-music archetypes of love, death and God are woven into each of Raposa's songs, filled with narratives of heartbreak, violence and a deity who may or may not care. "Well, I definitely don’t set out with a goal of fulfilling any archetypes," Raposa says. "I focus on love and death and God because I’m consumed by love and death and God. It’s just what ends up happening."It's interesting that these themes come organically to Raposa, where other artists in his line of work seem to be trying a little bit too hard. "I’m living in Portland, and there are all these old-time bands singing mining songs [and about] moonshine, and I get fed up with that," Raposa explains. "I [don't think I necessarily] admire those people who can get into character like that. When it goes wrong, it goes really wrong. And you know, I [don't] want any 19-year-old hollering at me about moonshine."
Suffice to say, the new Castanets album doesn't have any songs about moonshine. Instead, Texas Rose is one of those albums that owes plenty to Johnny Cash and other traditional country greats. The opening track, "Rose," has weeping steel guitar, a backing choir and handclaps, enough to make you think of an old honky-tonk song. "My Heart" sounds like one of those sad acoustic songs you might hear at a singer/songwriter night at a smoky bar. But then "On Beginning" starts up with a low organ rumble and some electronic textures, and it's clear that Castanets have again managed to blend all kinds of disparate sounds into a cohesive whole. And yes, the themes of love, death and and God permeate the whole album—"My Heart" is a creepily gothic love song ("My heart is an empty room for you") while the epic closer "Dance, Dance" talks about drug use, staving off death and the appreciation of a "dance" that we're all a part of.
And then there's the "Kate Bush" track, "Lucky Old Moon." "I had locked myself in the studio for a weekend while Rafter [my producer] was off doing shows," Raposa recalls. "We’d already done about half the record, and I was just demoing the rest. That song started off with just some acoustic guitar, some noodly electric, just a really spare take on it. Then Rafter came in, and he thought maybe the record didn’t need another one of those, so we started back on it with that drum loop, and then … we just had all those expensive synthesizers laying around, and why not use them?"
This ability to experiment and blow away peoples' expectations for exactly what folk music can be has been a calling card of the Castanets since their inception. And, of course, throughout Texas Rose, Raposa's haunted wail of a voice ties the songs together. He usually sounds like he's singing from another room, and world-weariness drips from every lyric as if writing and singing his own words have caused such a monumental effort he can't escape his fatigue.
Castanets will probably never be accused of being a "pop band," but that seems to be perfectly fine with Raposa. "There might be one or two songs [on Texas Rose] without a minor chord, and that’s about it; it doesn’t have Ben Gibbard on it," laughs Raposa. Indeed, Castanets are one of those hidden gems that feel like a true discovery whenever you discover them. With so much to unpack—both lyrically and musically—Castanets challenge and provoke listeners ... but mostly, they just make really great music that defies categorization.