When San Francisco native Owen Ashworth dropped out of film school in 1997, the only logical thing he could think to do was pick up cheap, battery-powered keyboards and record songs containing nothing but the available sounds. Over the course of a decade, under the name Casiotone For The Painfully Alone, he would craft five albums, dozens of EPs, splits and singles, his ability as a song-writer, musician and producer developing at the same rate, while retaining the same esoteric and mostly maudlin timbre of his early years. More conventional instruments, like guitars and acoustic drums, were peppered into later albums, but never fully realized within the context of his initial project.
With his newest album, A Shut-In’s Prayer, Ashworth now operates under the pseudonym of Advance Base, replacing the often vertiginous and overtly electronic aspects of his past work with organic tones. Still lo-fi, but matured and more elegant in it’s execution, A Shut-In’s Prayer finds the artist at his best and at his most lyrically revealing.
The album opens with “Summer Music,” an ominous torch song driven by the replicating loop of a chiming omnichord, as Ashworth laments, “There’s no comfort in sympathy/She’s upstate with a family/ I’m still at the same address/ I still believe I could love her best.” A similar tone is taken in “More Trouble,” as a relatively upbeat strain of piano and percussion is compared to the subject matter involving a doctor calling a close friend with horrible news.
While most of the stories told on the album typically involve interactions with friends and significant others, it’s in one involving a fictitious sister that we find the most detailed account. The aptly titled “My Sister’s Birthday” is a track that finds his character reminiscing over the relationship he used to share with his sister. Sparked by her recent birthday, he speaks of their differences in religion, childhood memories and her inability to cope with whatever it was that caused their falling out, focusing on the visceral rather than the specifics.
At the center of the album is Ashworth’s keen ability to tell ambivalent stories and the ever-present sound of a Rhodes 54 electric piano; the former it’s mouthpiece, the latter it’s backbone. Although many albums containing the persistent usage of a singular driving instrument have the tendency of coming off as lazy or repetitive, it’s the exact opposite on this material. Instead, the wide and manipulative breath of the versatile Rhodes is used to create a rhythmic waltz (“David Allen” & “The Sister You Never Had”), cramped ballads (“Christmas in Oakland”) and melodic layers of an instrumental outro (“Shut-In River Blues”).
On A Shut-In’s Prayer, dreary production quality and calculated musicianship collides with somber themes and intimate storytelling, painting an increasingly distressed portrait of a seemingly tired and certifiably introspective artist emerging from the shell of his past.
Sound Quality: Put simply, the sound on this recording is impeccable, especially when listened to on vinyl. Every piano key, no matter how subtle, and each nuanced layer of this album is on full display thanks to the vinyl mastering by Bob Weston. While the digital version sounds fuller than most other albums, it’s on vinyl where the long tones and tortured confessions that give A Shut In’s Prayer it’s unique voice reach their full capacity.
Packaging: Unlike most single LP albums pressed on 12” vinyl, Orindal Records’ packaging of A Shut-In’s Prayer is on an extremely thick single pocket sleeve. Although the lyrics and album credits are printed on the back cover, without insert, the thick sleeve and grainy photo of Ashworth (courtesy of photographer Tom Cops) compensate and makes for a very nice physical presentation of the album.
Summary: It isn’t often you find such sad and poignant music comprised primarily of electronic instrumentation — that’s often reserved for acoustic guitars and piano ballads — but with Owen Ashworth and his Advance Base debut, it’s a welcomed exception. It makes one question why this tonality isn’t taken more often as the deep, atmospheric and always complex compositions of A Shut-In’s Prayer excellently represent the weighty topics covered.
Make Sure To Spin: “New Gospel,” “Riot Grrrls” & “My Sister’s Birthday.”
You can still pick up the record at Orindal.