San Diegan Ray Raposa stunned the indie rock world last year with his gorgeous, haunting debut set, Cathedral. Taking cues from darkly Spiritual Americana icons like Johnny Cash and Will Oldham, the record was a folk album for those in need of both primal scream therapy and a serious creep-out. At times whisper quiet and at others, eerily grating, The Castanets provided a dark new chapter in the book of alt-country. Just one year later, Raposa has crafted a second album called First Light’s Freeze, a fitting follow-up that both continues in that album’s dark tradition and builds upon its eccentricities.
First Light’s Freeze displays a wide range of sounds and textures, finding The Castanets experimenting with different styles, at times even growing to thunderous volumes, though still embracing haunting stillness and subtlety. Ambient drones bleed into the quiet opener “Into the Night,” which is offset by the louder “A Song is Not the Song of the World.” Beginning like Modest Mouse’s “Tiny Cities Made of Ashes” with its simple chant of “where is the world?“, it slowly builds up into a louder, more densely arranged track, Raposa offers the question “what good unknowable divinity/if it’s not the world?”
The banjo-driven “Good Friend, Yr Hunger” is a dark reflection on friendships, Raposa offering “friend I cannot/befriend you true/in searching for/my light in you” and “I will not be an idle hand.” Aside from displaying more variety, musically, Raposa’s lyrics have also become a central, essential aspect of Castanets’ music, which is fitting, considering Raposa also writes fiction on the side.
Raposa still seems to prefer stark beauty over density on this set, despite some fuller-sounding tracks. The title track is little more than a repeated series of phrases over a restrained banjo, interrupted briefly by a drum machine. Yet, the song that follows, “No Voice Was Raised,” is the album’s majestic climax, building from a simple melody to a sweeping, powerful and totally rockin’ anthem. This is where Raposa truly shines, his own voice eventually becoming drowned out by the din of fuzz guitar, squealing saxophone and destructive beats.
The final third of the album finds Raposa filtering his haunting Americana though fuzzy shoegazer textures on “All that I Know to Have Changed You,” simple folk on “Dancing With Someone” (featuring a beautiful duet with Brigit DeCook) and droning ambience in “Reflecting in the Angles.” The album, on the whole is beautiful (including the gorgeous album art) and adventurous, though still a bit brief in comparison to its predecessor, due to an abundance of instrumental interludes. This is hardly a gripe, however, as length almost never determines an album’s worth. I can’t help but be left wanting more, which is a good sign of showmanship on Raposa’s part. And, hopefully, by this time next year, we’ll see even more of his haunted brilliance committed to tape.
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.