Casiotone for the Painfully Alone

Vs. Children

(Tomlab; 2009)

By George Bass | 30 March 2009

Ever wake up with the urge to tell all in short stories? Never want to get out of your bath? Then why in God’s name aren’t you wet for Owen Ashworth? Yes, he might have made his name by dictaphoning J. P. Donleavyisms to a keyboard, but that doesn’t stop him from being the most articulate teller of twentysomething angst to ever do battle with a beatbox. He even combed his hair for 2006’s Etiquette, swapping his trademark Casio tones for what his parents might call “proper instruments.” Believe it or not, it worked, and our man went from snack-fed bionic bedsitter to hardback flash fiction action man. Last month he worked off what could be the last of his digital urges with the Advance Base Battery Life compilation, and now it’s time to get down and dig to the vigor of Vs. Children—Casio goes criminal, toying with illegal sleaze. His latest set isn’t strictly concept, but it does consist largely of semi-fictional bandit biographies, taking in everything from death by jellyfish to altar boy bikers on crime sprees.

That’s right—altar boys, and real evil ones at that. Opening like DJ Shadow on sour grapes, “Tom Justice, The Choir Boy Robber, Apprehended at Ace Hardware in Libertyville, IL” not only has a title to make A Silver Mt. Zion shit themselves, it’s also a true based-on-a-true story. A former holy co-worker of Ashworth’s flipped out and went on the rob, cleaning out more safes than the Royal Mint’s housekeeping force before being rumbled by store detectives. “Took the money and you fled / Counted months till they found you / They had your bike, they were bound to / Twenty-six from here to home / Twenty-six, no gun, just notes / Twenty-six without a shot / That’s more than Bonnie and Clyde got.” The number is Holy Joe’s heist count, and shows that this is a new kind of loneliness being dictaphoned now: the private hedonism of gentlemen of fortune, like Ed Norton’s schizo-phoney-phrenic from Primal Fear (1996). Fittingly, the bad Yamahas and beat presets have been toned down to a more organic backing, with organs, kickdrums, and piano used to score all these idols turned sour. You might get the odd drum machine, as on “Traveling Salesman’s Young Wife Home Alone on Christmas in Montpelier, VT,” but even that soon makes way for tambourines and chapel uprights as a small town freezes for December. It’s still as soft as Snow Cake (2006), but it hasn’t detracted from Ashworth’s power to strike a chord with the almost unstrikable. He’s on another experiment gone good, pitching life as a receipt for a billion bad decisions against the extraordinary resolve of the heart, still beating when you most want it to burst. The bastard.

This time, though, it’s not just the hearts of half-fulfilled graduates—no-one’s ventricles are left totally alone for thirty minutes, and two thirds in to Vs. Children we get a jarring novella on pregnancy. “Killers”’ sunburnt grapple with abortion is a load more human than dancer, with Ashworth’s whisper of “We could be killers / Just for one night” taking you to places even Bowie won’t go. It is seriously one of the most affecting songs on fatherhood I’ve ever willingly sat through nine times, the sub-panpipe glow and insect tick adding unbearable ache to the turmoil. Only Morgan Freeman comes close with his candid monologue from Se7en: “I convinced her it was wrong. I mean…I wore her down, slowly. I can tell you now, I know…I’m positive I made the right decision. I’m positive. But, there’s never a day that passes that I don’t wish I had decided differently.” Luckily no one gets decapitated here, and the follow-up “Harsh The Herald Angels Sing” sees our heroine fumble with pregnancy, having made the (right?) decision to bring the child to term. “I guess I’ll just quit drinking / I guess I’ll just quit smoking / Guess I’ll need some names / Alvin, William or James / Doctor, tell me you’re joking,” speaks Ashworth, all of it warmed to that lovely hand-built trip-hop.

It’s the Casiotone defence mechanism: take your innermost awkward lumps and bathe them in rose-tinted easy listening. Ashworth successfully translate this to his new instruments no fewer than nine or ten times on this eleven track set—if you can’t kill your hang-ups to “Optimist vs. The Silent Alarm” and its samba-stained ode to two ram-raiders, then for God’s sake, get help. The talent for snap-shotting the heartache of strangers shows no signs of slowing sans synthesizers, and while Ashworth never purports to hold the universal solution to solitude, he does know that loneliness is a beat we all recognize, a boat we all have to row in sometimes. So please, put your yellow jacket on and always pack a cat for the voyage.