The wheezing, muted horns that open the Castanets’ debut
album, Cathedral, are indicative of the band’s cracked
America: rusty, broken and strangely alluring. It’s not an
altogether surprising worldview coming from Castanets frontman
Raymond Raposa, who tested out of high school at age 15 and spent
the next four years touring the United States on a Greyhound
bus.

It’s a pleasant surprise, then, that Cathedral
contains none of the “tortured genius finds America,
himself” lyrics that it might have. In fact, the odd,
disturbing sounds of Castanets fly in the face of conventional
“American” albums. Whereas classic American albums like
Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited and Bruce
Springsteen’s Born to Run connote a sense of motion and
discovery, Cathedral is mired in its swampy reverberations.
Indeed, there’s little here that would enhance the experience
of a cross-continental traveler driving along the roads with his
Walkman (ahem, iPod). Instead, Cathedral is a slow, static
album that speaks more from the mythic woodlands of Northern
California (where the album was recorded) than from the some
metaphorical highway.

In fact, the vague, romantic ideals that usually follow road
trips around don’t appear until “Cathedral 4 (The
Unbreakable Branch and Song),” when Raposa sings “This
is all our home” over the album’s gutsiest up-tempo
guitar strumming. Up until “Cathedral 4” – the
last track – there’s nothing to suggest Raposa can even
get outside of his own head. The compositions on Cathedral
are reminiscent of fellow noisy American upstarts such as Wilco or
Califone: Shaky drums, ethereal acoustic chords and spooky organs
all veer in and out of the mix. Raposa’s vanilla voice plods
along at the same place. His sing-speak ruminations are
appropriately dour and frequently the least-engaging aspect of the
album.

“You Are the Blood,” for instance, is simultaneously
one of the album’s best tracks and indicative of the
album’s greatest faults. Ghostly electronics usher in Raposa,
singing in slight harmony with a echoed female voice: “You
are the blood flowing through my fingers / All through the soil and
up in those trees.” Intimidating horn blasts echo his lines,
blowing through the sloth-slow drum hits. By the end of the track,
the song has devolved into random drum palpitations and static.
It’s an intimidating, creepy mess, a death-folk ballad filled
with potent blasts of noise. It’s also sluggish, humorless,
and utterly disconnected with the outside world.

“No Light to Be Found (Fare Thee Faith, the Path Is
Yours)” has a similar problem. Raposa opens the song in utter
isolation, “I’ve got something that my baby
wants,” and later, “I had a dream so black / That I
could not tell / But I know that’s just as well.”
Raposa’s gravel throat gives these words a gravity that this
page can’t, but for listeners not in an lonely, autumnal
mood, there’s no salvation in such gray thoughts.

Raposa does occasionally move into more traditional alt-country
territory, and while this sound is less unique, it humanizes his
weariness in ways that his noisier work doesn’t even
approach. It’s for this reason that the album’s final
two songs – “We Are the Wreckage” and the
aforementioned “Cathedral 4” – feel so
invigorated. Cathedral is a great rainy-day album, and
Raposa has a singular vision and sound that many of his
contemporaries can only dream of. Until he learns to tone down the
angst and brighten the cabin, however, his rusty Americana will
never realize its full potential.

 

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.