First Light's Freeze

(Asthmatic Kitty; 2005)

By Peter Hepburn | 10 October 2005

A while back I bought a turntable --- a pretty nice one, actually, probably better than I needed. Friends kept asking me why, and it was a justified question. I don’t DJ, didn’t have that many records, and don't have a stereo system good enough to really be able to tell the difference between vinyl and CD. So, why drop $300 on a turntable? The best answer I can give, and one I stand by, is that I love albums. Not just collections of songs but real, honest-to-god, cohesive albums. There ought to be an order and a reason to records which make them better than the sum of their parts. A turntable forces you to just listen to the album; stop worrying about the playlists, track lengths, and various other iTunes detritus and listen to the music. I own almost no Best Of compilations, no Greatest Hits packages, no Career Retrospectives; I seek out singles and EPs, I won’t download an album unless I can get all the tracks, and I’ve never used the iTunes store. It’s more or less a mental illness, but I can’t help shaking the feeling that it’s the best way to listen to music. There is, of course, an argument to be made that pop/rock music both began with singles and is currently returning to that format after a long and (in my opinion) all-important cycle toward the album format in the 1970s.

Which makes it not so surprising that Asthmatic Kitty, in describing Castanets’s second album, the superb First Light’s Freeze, would so clearly try to place it in the continuum that finds it’s origins in the late ‘70s. Very simply, Raymond Raposa, the main Castanet, writes albums (albums of exactly the same length at that; both Castanets’s debut, Cathedral, and First Light’s Freeze clock in at 33:25). Cathedral was one of the most promising records of 2004, showing a thematic flow and developed level of song-writing rarely seen in debut efforts. First Light’s Freeze proves pretty convincingly that it wasn’t a fluke.

Whereas Cathedral had the overwhelming feel of spirituality and a battle with faith and love, First Light’s Freeze sees our intrepid narrators (the perspective shifts are startling at times, but always carried smoothly) dealing with the people around them. If Cathedral thrived on its distance, First Light’s Freeze is about immediacy and reactions that entail friendship, love, and war. It sounds heavy-handed, and there are moments where it could have been, but Raposa seems to have an almost preternatural ability to make his material work. Beyond the thematic shifts, Raposa has widened his musical palette, becoming more comfortable with his electric guitar, his ability to push the boundaries of folk music, and to up the production values. He also seems to have taken a hint from label head Sufjan Stevens, including 5 brief instrumental interludes over the course of 13 tracks. I didn’t particularly buy the argument with Illinois that these interludes represented padding, and it holds even less true here. They pull the songs together and maintain the dour climate of the album throughout. The results are nothing short of phenomenal.

“Into the Night,” with its intricate layers of production and hushed vibe, properly opens the album with the ominous invitation, “let’s go outside dear / in the murderous night / let’s go out walking.” It’s “A Song is Not the Song of the World” that really gets the ball rolling. Raposa has clearly become more comfortable with the sort of electronic beats that he used to close Cathedral, and here he plays them off a pretty convincing set of guitar twiddling, a well-produced multi-track of his own voice, and some of his best lyrics to date. It takes a while, but by the second half of the song he’s off about, “what good these myriad mythologies / and what good these magics not to be released / and what good unknowable divinity / if it’s not the world?,” and it’s pretty clear he’s hit his stride, especially as the band kicks in and the productions fills out the song beautifully. It makes the following track, the sparse “Good Friend, Yr Hunger” all the more startling and beautiful. It’s as much a song of failed love as it is a lament to the devil, and Raposa’s reedy voices carries it beautifully over the simple drum line and chugging bass.

The second section of the album opens with the contemplative “Bells Aloud,” with Raposa dealing with a relationship’s possibilities in the hard times. Brigit DeCook joins Raposa on a few lines and it’s a shock of fresh air when the two harmonize through the thinly veiled violence and heartbreak of, “don’t get it get dark outside? / and you’d better hold me / you’d better hold me only / better know me / buts there’s no way of knowing / there’s no way to tell / and aren’t we deep and dangerous wells.” The title track is the album’s only real soft spot, with a strangely unnecessary false ending and lyrics that don’t much stack up. Raposa has the good sense to follow it up with the album’s strongest track, the electronic-beat driven “No Voice Was Raised.” There’s a guitar hook in there I never expected to hear out of the Castanets, and the superbly cacophonous squall of the later half of the song seemingly feeds on the fear and anger that Raposa is aiming for with his lyrics.

The album’s final third opens with the loving and self-reproaching “All the Things that I Know to Have Changed in You,” Raposa singing over an absolutely immense and gorgeous wall of production. He follows it by stripping away everything on the escapist “Dancing with Someone,” which sounds like it could have been recorded on a four track. The song’s sad disillusionment and resolution is summed up in the heart-wrencher of DeCook and Raposa, multitracked over just his own guitar, singing, “I wanna forget this reckoning / proud and disbelieving / get the hell out of Denton / with the privilege of everything.”

This all seems terribly inadequate to try and explain why First Light’s Freeze works so well. Part of it is just Raposa, and his ability to write fantastic songs within the context of broader themes (can’t hurt that he’s quite the budding novelist as well). But musically this is such a leap forward as well, not so much moving past the Americana of Cathedral as incorporating elements of whatever else seems to work. There are the electronic beats, the free-jazz elements (courtesy of Create(!) and legendary saxophonist Daniel Carter), and the hugely complex production that makes even the short interludes (especially “(Migration Concentric)”) such great listens. More than all of that it just works and flows as an album, which deserves a fair deal of recognition. It's the kind of album that needs to be released on vinyl (c'mon Asthmatic Kitty) to be heard the way it's truly meant to be heard; but for now we’ll just have to stick with digital to enjoy Raymond Raposa’s steady and improving output.