(Asthmatic Kitty; 2004)

By Peter Hepburn | 27 October 2004

Listening to The Castanets Cathedral, I am tempted to conclude that God lives in a small, haunted cabin in Northern California. Probably pretty far up there—almost Oregon, yet still defiantly California—where it rains without thunder and the clouds hang low to the ground. Even if He doesn’t necessarily live there, it seems like Raymond Raposa, the Castanets' front man, must have come across Him there, if only for a moment, and can’t quite come to grips with what it means. Cathedral is deeply spiritual, not in an overpowering way, but in the sort of way that Sufjan Stevens or even David Bazan conveys just a hint of something deeper, darker, more painful going on below the surface.

The end results lead me to think that Raposa is either entirely insane or quite the budding genius, and either way he has managed to release a debut record that challenges anything that the freak folkies have put out this year. This album is at points scarier than Joanna Newsom, more sincere than Devendra Banhart, and more sophisticated than Vetiver. Raposa’s similarities to Will Oldham are worth noting (especially on the magnificent “Three Days, Four Nights”) but he doesn’t come off as derivative. While he may not have Oldham’s imaginative and perverse lyrical capabilities, he’s more straightforward, less wordy, and has a better voice to boot.

Cathedral is largely defined by what isn’t there. The album was reportedly recorded in a secluded cabin, and it sounds it. Raposa spends much of the album sounding like he’s singing in a casket—songs like “No Light to Be Found” are so sparse they come close to non-existence. Backing vocals, courtesy of Brigit DeCook are ghostly, and the instrumentation feels like it could be blown away by the slightest wind. But then again the songs never become formulaic: the country swagger of “We Are the Wreckage” and the nearly post-rock climax of “Industry and Snow” contrast sharply with the quieter “Cathedral” series (with the exception of the electronic funk beats on the second half of “Cathedral 4”) or the beautiful “The Smallest Bones.” While this level of eclecticism may seem dangerous, Raposa manages not only to pull it off, but to make it strongly compelling.

The album opens with some serious biblical purification. “Cathedral 2” meanders in a sort of blurry haze; percussion comes out of nowhere, horns blare in the distance, and DeCook’s beautiful alto complements Raposa’s tenor as he wails out: “Puddles have turned into lakes / We are playing storm down these steps /A river is running.” “Industry and Snow” is as driving as the album gets, and feels somewhat out of place, but the momentum breaks for the beautiful trio of songs at the heart of the record.

“You are the Blood” is a breathtaking love song—Raposa and DeCook are nothing short of staggering, and the lazy, reverb-drenched horns match the underwater guitars and piano perfectly. “No Light to be Found” is the undeniable centerpiece of the album. Raposa has either lost his faith, his love, or possibly both, and the longing in his sparse vocals is palpable. The mood is maintained on “Three Days, Four Nights,” which may have the distinction of being the best executed track here. The backing vocals, which here sound like they were screamed from another room, are that hook that makes the off-kilter drum line all the more faultless.

The two country numbers on the album, “As You Do” and “We Are the Wreckage,” are interrupted by Raposa’s chilling prayer to God, “The Smallest Bones,” which bears similarities to the best from both Oldham and Sam Beam. The bizarrely beautiful “Cathedral 4” seems to be the ideal closer for the album. Raposa’s lyrics are in top form: “Hey shake in your sleep / Now spirits could shift in two different ways / Into each other / Into our days,” before leading into: “You’ve got this flesh and you can’t lose it / This body’s a test but you can’t prove it.” There’s also the electronic beats that Raposa chooses to employ here, working the Castanets into a pretty convincing groove before cutting it off dead. The album clocks in at a somewhat brief 33 minutes, but then again, how many Blueberry Boats can we deal with in one year?

Maybe I’m a sucker for the vague or the unclear, but there’s something dark and haunting in this album. Raposa has managed to capture an element of faith, a dying love, something deeply heartfelt here, and it comes through in his songs. As the drums rise to a crescendo on “Three Days, Four Nights” he wails out: “For instance listen as I across these miles / I try to tell you I love you." And I have no doubt that it’s coming from deep in his soul. I can think of little praise higher than that.