Ray Raposa is a wandering man. Having originally started his career in the early part of the decade in San Diego with his excellent debut Cathedral, Raposa has since traveled to Brooklyn and Portland, yielding the dark and desolate In the Vines in the midst of his urban relocation. Yet the creation of Castanets’ fourth album, City of Refuge, came not from coastal towns or hipster paradise, but rather from a three-week session in a Nevada desert motel. Tellingly, it takes a dramatic step away from the rustic indie folk of Raposa’s previous outings.
Where Raposa’s previous compositions were subtle but still largely based in an accessible form of songcraft, not unlike that of Will Oldham, City of Refuge is an album forged of minimalism. Each song is bare and haunting, oftentimes containing little more than a lone guitar, ringing in a hollow space, sometimes without the benefit of Raposa’s own vocals to reinforce their lonely melodies. Having learned of Raposa’s own desert inspiration, it makes perfect sense that he would choose to record an album that unfolds like a desert highway, with the horizon just out of reach of the dim headlights.
City of Refuge is a peculiarly structured creation, with three stark, dusty instrumentals rolling in before Raposa even opens his mouth. By track four, “Prettiest Chain,” we finally hear the man behind the guitar, though even here, the songwriting retains an eerie nakedness. Each song has a dirge-like feel, and some, like “Refuge 1,” are meditative. Raposa even channels Nick Cave in “Refuge 1” as he sings “I’m gonna run to the city of refuge.” “The Quiet” is surprisingly upbeat, though still unobstructed by external instrumentation, while the lengthier “Glory B” features a catchier, if somewhat more despondent progression. By contrast, “I’ll Fly Away” is a country-gospel standout, inspirational and simple in its blissful celebration. Yet “Savage” is fearsome in its thunderously ringing riffs, cavernous and devastating in its sparse approach.
Raposa has captured a romantically dark reflection of the Nevada landscape in his latest work, which is as cohesive and stunning an album as he’s ever created. It’s also the most minimal, recalling at times Neil Young’s soundtrack to Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man, while retaining the abstract folk tendencies of peers such as Wooden Wand or Six Organs of Admittance. It is, perhaps, his weirdest album, given that many of the instrumentals tend to veer into more experimental territory for the songwriter, but when patched together, it’s a captivating musical narrative, and a testament to the power of a simple melody.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.