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[whitespace] Owen Ashworth The Man Who Would Be Casio: Owen Ashworth has yet to join the Foreign Legion.


Heartbeeps

Casiotone for the Painfully Alone reaches out to the emotionally isolated

By Kelli Callis

Where other rock bands may add keyboards as kitschy filler or homage to their New Wave heroes, Casiotone for the Painfully Alone sings sincere with only keyboards: electronics of the AA-battery-powered variety--fifth-grade Christmas presents, recycled-to-the-Salvation-Army Casios and Yamahas, even a pastel-blue Muppet Babies one.

Casiotone, as the band is lovingly called by its small but devoted following, has been around for about two years. The band is composed of only one member: Owen Ashworth, an adorably lumpy young writer who is a new installment of the one-man-band genius wielding suicidal popsongs, along the lines of John Darnielle (of the Mountain Goats) and Stephin Merritt (of Magnetic Fields). He plays keyboards because he simply doesn't know how to play guitar. Ashworth says that if he could, he probably would have made all the songs going the traditional guitar route. To him, keyboards are not a nostalgic gimmick; they're simply the most convenient instrument to write songs on when one spends--as Ashworth used to--most of one's free time selling tickets in a movie theater box office.

Answering Machine Music, the first full-length release from Casiotone, combines witty lyricism and seemingly simplistic instrumentation into surprisingly complex and intelligent songs with a computer-generated waltz beat. The album title, Ashworth says, is a nod to Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music, a double album composed only of feedback. Casiotone's Answering Machine Music was recorded on boomboxes and borrowed four- tracks, in bedrooms as makeshift studios, using a Casio SK-1, a Yamaha Portasound and a variety of Casiotones souped up for amplification. The production varies from the clean four tracks to the muddy answering microtaped message. The first song on the album, "Theme from David Hanna," was in fact recorded on an answering machine. It even fits perfectly as an outgoing message. Ashworth states that he sends himself voicemail when he has an idea for a song, sometimes even recording pieces of the song so he will remember it later. The noises and glitches one hears in the production only reinforce the idea of the song as a result of the mixing of machines and sequences and not just the disconnected melody that sticks in your head. When the boom box that records "Casiotone for the Painfully Alone Joins the Foreign Legion" loudly cuts off on the CD track, preparing you for the next message, it concludes like the beep of an answering machine.

Answering is Ashworth's answer to music comprised mainly of the workings of machines. One merely pushes the button for the "Rock 2" beat and switches on the fingered chords, and you've got a song. But much like the Mountain Goats, whose keyboard generated songs are titled with the adjective "pure" as in "Pure Love" and "Pure Intentions," Casiotone melds the seemingly stony and sterile computer-generated sounds with heartbreakingly mundane "pure" and honest lyrics. The cold aloofness of Kraftwerk and other robotic tie-wearing keyboardists co-exists with this messy-haired, fumbling loner guy in a ratty sweatshirt and jeans trying to write a less-than-cheesy love song.

Ashworth as a result has reinvented the traditional pop love song, transforming the usual mythic declarations of love to simple realistic anecdotes. In "Secretest Crush," the narrator can't write a song about the girl he is pining for "because she loves my band." A strange girl buying rice milk in the grocery store gets her one minute and 51 seconds in "Rice Dream Girl." He even writes about crossing the Bay Bridge with a loved one in "When the Bridge Toll Was a Dollar." The beat behind the words is jarringly repetitive, backing a sweet and sentimental melody as the object of desire is described innocently putting a piece of hair behind her ear as she drives. While Magnetic Fields' songs dwell on codependency and morose longing, Casiotone's songs are not about being "painfully alone" as much about as the small flickers of connection and the potential of love.

One could also look at Answering Machine Music as a singles collection, since Ashworth issues his latest creations taped over old cassingles, selling them at shows under the name Cassingle USA. The album, put out by Ashworth as Cassingle USA, gives a good history of the early works of Casiotone, taking us through the very first songs, such as "Baby It's You" (a noisy, aching, raw song about a missed connection), to the later "Beeline" (a catchy, bitter song about healing after abandonment,) to even more recent songs like "Cold Shoulder," a more subdued and mature song about leaving and returning to a relationship.

Anyone with a tendency to get suckered in by a good catchy pop song and who has had a broken heart will find these songs wedged permanently in the head. The songs are true to love, but they're rarely about "true love." They are about the embarrassing persistence of calling someone who has thwarted you ("You Never Call"), making your way home "past the blinking lights of the strip clubs and Carl's Jr." ("I Should Have Kissed You When I Had the Chance"), or rereading yearbook messages, still longing for someone you adored in high school ("Daina Flores, You're the One"). At a recent show, a woman approached Ashworth, telling him she thought turning his loneliness into music must be helping him cope with his loss. "I don't know," he laughs. "The songs aren't necessarily about me!"


Contact Cassingle USA for more information: 1806 Church St., San Francisco, 94131.

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From the November 8, 1999 issue of the Metropolitan.

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