By Jacob Katel
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Never has electronic music sounded warmer or more human than Casiotone for the Painfully Alone. Owen Ashworth uses equipment that could be considered antique (SK-1 or MT-100 models of Casio keyboards) to provide a humming, squeaking, buzzing backdrop for his tales of pained love. When he opens for the Scottish, sample-happy team Metrovavan at PopLife's three-year anniversary party, the Portland-based musician Casiotone will set the perfect tone for the legions of sexually frustrated bohemians who haunt the club every Saturday night.
"Although my songs are mainly fiction," says Ashworth from a tour stop in California, "I think they are in some way documenting the lives of people not too different from me. I like to think of [my songs] as tiny, honest tragedies in the lives of fairly average young people. I hope that they are stories that people can relate to."
The sound of Casiotone recalls the spooky, lo-fi years of His Name Is Alive, the dark mood of later-era Tom Waits, and the melodic hyperactivity of legendary Eighties one-man outfit the Silicon Teens. Ashworth's lyrics capture the soul of the loser in love. Woe is the guy who screws up the right opportunity to talk to the pretty girl he spies at the supermarket ("Rice Dream Girl" from Casiotone's self-released debut, Answering Machine Music: A Brief Album in Twelve Parts).
Though Ashworth builds the backdrop to his songs with electronic gear, his songwriter roots connect to something more primal: the folk song. "I listen to Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music pretty obsessively," confesses Ashworth. "I like the idea of folk music in the sense that it stands as a document of unexceptional lives."
This appreciation for folk stands out in Ashworth's songcraft. "Tonight Was a Disaster," from Ashworth's second album and latest release, Pocket Symphonies for Lonesome Subway Cars (available on Germany's Tomlab imprint), reveals the poet within. "Crying in the cab ride home/They played Frank Sinatra on the radio/but it might as well have been Lil' Kim/When every song you hear still reminds you of him/And you'll say that it's no big deal/But there's a shake in your voice that gives away how you feel/And you couldn't/Slam the door/Any faster." Such rhythm and imagery is typical of the sly, brilliant, and all-too-brief Pocket Symphonies.
"My favorite songs have always been the sad ones," Ashworth admits. "I love Hank Williams and the Carter Family and things like that. There's something really satisfying about a really depressing song. Those are the ones that stick with you, I think."