Some time ago, a friend told me that Castanets were releasing a new album. My first reaction was to say "already?" - and I did - but thinking back on it, it has been more than a year since Castanets' Cathedral busted onto the scene to extreme critical acclaim, including some from this venerable institution. Raymond Raposa's dark, spare americana and atmospheric folk remains excellent and I recommend it again here. Having heard they were coming out with a new one, I set out to find it, and came across this album. Until a few days ago, I believed this to be the new album, and I wasn't sure if it was a logical step for his melodies to get darker and more spare on his follow-up. As it turns out, this is his debut album, which makes more sense to me, having heard it and Cathedral. What shocks me (and what made me think this was the new album) is the quality of the songwriting - young Raposa is a master of creating these mournful, beautiful, and convincingly dramatic songs (my mother heard it playing some time and said to me it was "suicide music"). While I'm not sure that either he or the unconvincingly dramatic Bright Eyes have had the life experiences to be writing such frighteningly morbid and resigned music, Raposa succeeds by making his songs indistinct and mythical instead of personal and embarassing. It bothers me somewhat that this guy, who is approximately my age, is writing things of this caliber.
The funeral march begins with "Metal On the Tracks," which begins with an acoustic guitar which will become familiar, is joined by Raposa's low drawl, and eventually explodes - the only track which does so by my reckoning. "At Least One Lie" follows, a song about a defeated lover, sounding a little bitter. "Heaps of Wheat" is perhaps the most poppy track, with the thickest instrumentation and the steadiest beat. "Try Not to See Too Much of That You Can't Touch" is one of my favorites - a repetitive guitar and maraca set the beat and tone, with slide guitar and electric joining in with more drums, horns, and such later - once again, the lyrics are excellent but torturously downcast in their content: "Some friends die one way, some die another; And I'm dying a third; which is worse?" he asks in closing.
"If the Raft Holds" is, like "No Light to Be Found" on Cathedral, the long album-divider track, but while it is excellent, it is not quite as haunting as the latter and thus does not fulfill its purpose quite as well. "No Sleep Among the Stars" is a short, instrumental track serving as a sort of intro to "Crops of Crosses," which I feel is a bit out of place on this album. Its drum machine beat sounds foreign and it just sounds a little amateurish compared to the grandeur of the album's final third. "Maker Make Us New," "As Martyr..." and "What Kind of Cure" I like to think of as a single movement. The first is a short, instrumental intro to set the stage. The second is the album's longest track, and I feel its most experimental. The backing instrumentation is atmospheric and strange - radio noise and accordion start it out - but it picks up pace later, but it is not dense with sound, the star is the careful and unhurried songwriting. The final track is another favorite of mine, and it gives me shivers every time I hear it. It works better as an album-ender than a single, so I'm not going to provide it, but the title track shines despite its deeply depressing content. Emerging from the static and noodling of the previous track, "What Kind of Cure" is also atmospheric, with only guitar strums and a wash of carefully controlled plucking to accompany Raposa's elegiac writing. "Sun through the water; the winter stole our daughter; I've given up on ghosts..." Who knows what it means, and who cares, it strikes deep enough without that knowledge. "What kind of hurt makes you stronger? What kind of cure are you after?" he seems to barely manage to sing, suddenly echoed at the end by beautiful female vocals before the song disappears into noise.
Compared to this, Cathedral - widely hailed as a dark and moody affair - is a trip to the circus, and I'm not talking about the sad kind of circus. What Kind of Cure's scarily affecting pathos and tight, beautiful instrumentation make me value it more as an album, despite Cathedral's mighty middle movement. If you at all like Songs:Ohia, Appendix Out, or Will Oldham-type stuff, you'll find this album to be a real jewel in your collection.
Here's "Try Not to See Too Much of What You Can't Touch," by Castanets, from the album What Kind of Cure.
Update: Some helpful soul named Erik has located the album art, small as it is, so without further ado: