I’ll admit that I wasn’t familiar with Casiotone for the Painfully Alone’s oeuvre prior to listening to their fifth full length, Vs. Children. Sure, I chuckled to myself at their oh-so-clever name and had some idea of what their electro-lo-fi aesthetic might sound like: deadpan vocals, trusty drum machine and music recorded in the intimate setting of a bedroom – a younger version of Stephen Merritt, maybe. After listening to Vs. Children, Casiotone’s Owen Ashworth didn’t exactly prove my assumptions wrong.
Let’s jump back: Vs. Children is not so much a concept album but one that overwhelmingly dwells on two themes: the life of crime and whether or not to have kids. The album art reflects this with a stylized illustration of a very pregnant Bonnie Parker knitting a miles-long scarf. The story of Bonnie and Clyde looms large over many of the songs along with an anecdotal story of Tom Justice, a former co-worker of Ashworth who similarly robbed banks. These tales of lives on the lam seem to have nothing to do with babies and parenting, yet in Ashworth’s mind, criminals on the run and unsettled young couples are just either side of the same coin. Both lead lives that are unsustainable in the long run and where “accident” can mean a robbery gone wrong or a surprising conception. It’s a tenuous thesis, one you either buy or not, but it’s nonetheless interesting. A song tracing Justice’s crime spree (with the Sufjan Stevens-like title: “Tom Justice, The Choir Boy Robber, Apprehended at Ace Hardware in Libertyville, IL”) easily blends into a song sung from the perspective of a young, unwed mother in “Harsh the Herald Angels Sing.”
Whether you buy Ashworth’s thesis or not, he still deftly adopts various perspectives and roles and his matter of fact vocals have a unique charm that’s not unlike that of Stephen Merritt’s. Though Ashworth’s vocals border on monotone and lend little to actual characterization, his lyrics can have a devastating effect. The all too real monologue of “Killer” is heartbreaking and jarring as the narrator grapples with abortion: “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.” Though the subject matter is difficult, “Killer” is still remarkably listenable, even on repeat, balanced by subtly playful percussions and Ashworth’s laconic delivery.
Vs. Children finds Ashworth continuing his musical trajectory of 2006’s Etiquette, using not just his namesake keyboard, but a piano, organ and Mellotron as well. In a way, I was thankful for this broadening of musical palettes – giving the songs a bit more variety than the standard issue sad guy with a keyboard in his bedroom routine I was expecting. Granted, there is still plenty of that on Vs. Children, but songs like “Harsh the Herald Angels Sing” and “Optimist Vs. the Silent Alarm (Where the Saints Go Marching In)” are welcoming in their variety. While Ashworth’s confessional and absorbing lyrics are truly outstanding, many of them get lost within songs that sound too similar to each other. Vs. Children doesn’t grab you at first listen and it wasn’t until many repeated plays later did I really come to appreciate Ashworth’s gift as a writer. Don’t get me wrong, Vs. Children is a charming, pleasant listen but the extreme lo-fi aesthetic doesn’t quite do the lyrics justice and ultimately it’s the lyrics that are the most rewarding thing about the album.