Summer Music

Some recording artists, like some poets, can’t be discussed in the vulgar commercial terms of audiences, as Robert Graves famously said a zillion years ago when the world was so much younger than it is now, when the world was enraptured by her poets, the canaries in our coal mines of culture.

Advance Base

Advance Base

These recording artists, as indeed our dwindling number of poets, speak to people directly, one on one, not in groups. Whether on vinyl or in live performance, the job is about talking to one person at a time, continuously, with every word, every note, yours for the taking.

Advance Base

Advance Base

That’s the secret behind Owen Ashworth’s latest project, Advance Base, and his touring, but was also true of his other project, Casiotone for the Painfully Alone. His recent appearance at The Business in Anacortes, WA (for the record, Anacortes is not a hipster town, you’re thinking of that other place), proved Mr. Graves right, even all these zillions of years later. Every song Owen offered up, with several selections from his latest LP, “Nephew in the Wild” (Orindal Records, 2015), which I wrote about… whenever, was like something personal, for each of us in the room.

Advance Base

Advance Base

The applause at the end of each piece seemed to crash in and stomp on the tenderness of what felt like something very quiet, very intimate, very… just for me, OK! But it’s the polite thing to do, to applaud when songs finish. And yet, every time, the noise of such annoying social conventions with Ashworth’s songs breaks the spell, which only reinforces the long dead, irascible Mr. Graves, all those zillions of years ago.

Real conversation has no need of praise or apology. That night, at The Business, everything, every story, every song, every feeling, every memory, was… just between us.

Troubled Waters

Nephewinthewildcover

There’s an irresistible temptation to mention important literature and literary figures when it comes to reviewing the songwriting of Owen Ashworth. This makes him one of the most fascinating (and perplexing) modern recording artists to talk and read about. Whichever of his bands and records you choose to consider, Casiotone for the Painfully Alone or Advance Base, his latest creative venture, Ashworth garners impressive literary comparisons and faint praise in equal measure.

Photo: Tom Cops

Photo: Tom Cops

Ashworth’s work is respected. But his records seem to receive mediocre ratings by industry buzz masters. Or worse, he’s given patronizing or grudging recommendations that hardly inspire you to dash out and get his latest LP. It’s almost as if his writing style, very much in the dark (and similarly humorous or satirizing) tradition of author David Foster Wallace (to make yet another lofty literary comparison), attracts derision. Each new record raises hopes, but they mysteriously fail to fulfill the standards of most of his critics. How he misses is always ambiguous. It’s like the work connects, but the artist himself pisses people off somehow.

Thing is, we secretly all hate mirrors, even as we need them, in music and literature, to see ourselves. Mirrors make us feel rightly or wrongly judged. And Ashworth can be the saddest mirror of all. In the 1930s, author and peace leader Vera Brittain wrote about how lives lived in close and stifling proximity long for comfort, but thinking too much about reality can get in the way of living comfortably. The alternative: Stay put, don’t think. It’s still true: For some people, too much thinking only means trouble in paradise.

Photo: Tom Cops

Photo: Tom Cops

And that’s Ashworth’s challenge, song after song, record after record as he writes of troubled waters rising in quietly desperate lives. The people in his latest songs on the elegant new “Nephew in the Wild” (Orindal Records, 2015) are trying (in vain) to get clean, or signing leases and fighting with their landlords, or fixing up rusted out cars that just wind up on blocks in the backyard, or getting married too young and to the wrong people, or worrying about abusive pasts and dead-end jobs, or raising kids alone, all while praying for a world that still believes in prayer. Ashworth’s songs are about people thinking too much and paying too much. The songs obsess over the small things, but nothing quite works out. But along the way there are brilliant moments of wisdom and even humor, all of which makes for touching social commentary. Like this, from the song “Pamela”: “Your dad was seventeen/& dumb as a drum machine… Your mom was sixteen/& sweeter than saccharine….”

Photo: Tom Cops

Photo: Tom Cops

Every song on “Nephew in the Wild” fits together like an extended script, scenes about searching for missing lives, missing loves, and missing hope. They carry the load together. Even Ashworth’s signature lo-fi approach confounds some critics. His sound is a smart framework to keep things simple. The music is about the story and the feeling, narrowing the focus to close-ups and memorable fragments. His simplicity takes some things out of the equation and makes space for others.

In Ashworth’s universe the random events of the present predict the future, which makes the smallest things harbingers for troubles ahead. Just imagine if a song like his “Summon Satan,” played scratchy, like on an old vinyl record in another room, were to be used at the ending of a particularly dark episode of “The Walking Dead”: “You can worry about the future/You can worry about the past/You can worry about how long/this curse is going to last.” His is a warning of unstoppable terrible things to come. Everyone would need to have his music because it sometimes feels so good to feel so bad. Ashworth’s darkness would at last be in focus. And everyone else would finally get it.

[Artist photos by Tom Cops. Used by permission. All rights reserved.]