Casiotone for the Painfully Alone

Advance Base Battery Life Comp

(Tomlab; 2009)

By George Bass | 2 March 2009

Saultations Casiotone, and welcome back your bad self. After three years out in the fringes (alone and in pain/training), everyone’s favorite film school flunker rides back into town with a repertoire. Act I: next month’s anticipated Vs. Children set, which, going by the snippets previewed on MySpace, looks set to incorporate more instruments. The warm-up: Advance Base Battery Life, prescription rarities from his synth-soaked yearbook to indulge your desire for the old days. And for anyone out there who thinks that Casiotone isn’t indulgence made flesh, here’s plenty of reason to reconsider. Owen Ashworth writes his songs like a volume of Bret Easton Ellis shorts: zombified tales of brushes with strangers, everything dated and ’80s and Pez. It’s also lit with flashes of John Hughes heroics—“White Corrola,” already transformed into the pop cartoon of the year, shows that no-one does paranoia outside the laundromat quite like our ‘Tone. It takes a talent in tragedy to put this much soul into the time between conversations and listening to this medley from Ashworth’s archives is proof that it’s possible to work alchemy on your grey days.

Like any chronological compilation, there’s a balance here between b-sides and bullion, with a good deal of the treasure being buried in Ashworth’s more off-the-wall collaborations and covers. His two attempts at Springsteen shine in particular, with “Born In The USA” blurred into boyhood sunshine and “Streets Of Philadelphia”’s glum pads lending the Boss’s confessions some lumpier tear-ducts. On the whole Advance Base retains the fragility of The First Two Albums (2005), carrying more nostalgia than the smell of saltpeter in a billion school basements. Except: cuckolded completists who favour this stuff will probably have already amassed it, leaving you wondering who a CD like this is possibly hoping to sway. Certainly not Beyoncé fans, who’d squirm at the clanking “Hot Boyz” cover that reels in Dear Nora on guest. Yes, Casiotone isn’t just humdrum dejection: there’s a fantastic dry wit here, with the ringtone-sized “The Only Way To Cry” giving instructions to CEOs watching Titanic. Even the more straight-laced efforts have tongue-in-cheek corners to them, and between the pessimistic pedometers and sorry organ glows you wonder if you’re having your chain yanked. Then a line like “All the rain on the day that you died / Never seen the reservoir so high / I guess this is as close as it gets to goodbye” hits you, and you realise this is very serious. Or at least it can be when it isn’t just a tiny bit coy.

Four albums in, it’s odd how Advance Base Battery Life could easily be an introduction to the world of Owen Ashworth, highlighting his knack for freezing the moment between heartbreak and leaving the party. Some of the more irregular numbers scream “demo” between their whisperings—think very early Arab Strap, midi beats in place of the crass Scottish semen puns—but overall it’s a solid little barometer, one or two cues offering insight into Casiotone’s current organic direction (see “It’s A Crime” and its tinges of gentle bluegrass). As a singer, Ashworth is a broken dictaphone, his range on par with a left-handed peashooter, but as a songwriter he knows how to make it paralyze and does so to frequent effect. Strange, then, that this compilation’s ranking is oddly hard to get a handle on. Soundtrack to MacBook downtime while you worry if you’re still in her Top 8? Of course yes. Worthwhile deputy to take up the mantle should the new album fail to resonate? Hmm, food for thought there. It’s tasty, but not quite a meal. It’s nachos.