Album Review: Advance Base – A Shut-In’s Prayer

[Orindal / Caldo Verde; 2012]

When Owen Ashworth announced in December of 2010 that Advance Base would indeed be the moniker to rise from the ashes of his much beloved Casiotone for the Painfully Alone project, it seemed unclear what the distinction really was. Ashworth’s work as Casiotone always dealt in similar lo-fi synth and drums tone, with his instrumental palette expanding throughout the years of the project’s existence. The debut piece he worked on under this new name was some production work on a Serengeti 7” that came out on Asthmatic Kitty and this, as well as the 6 tracks he produced on Serengeti’s debut solo effort for Anticon seemed to bear the characteristic marks of Casiotone tracks. Recording fidelity was at a minimum, everything still seemed to be largely synth and drum machine driven, but it was all mostly the same. With the further evidence of recent singles, and certainly this debut LP, Casiotone fans can let out a deep sigh of relief. Ashworth, though working on a new moniker, is still working with the same heartbreakingly beautiful songwriting modes that he mined in his years as CFTPA.

Early reactions to Ashworth’s Advance Base material have pegged it as a higher fidelity version of his earlier sound, and though this is true to some degree, it ignores Vs. Children — his last full length as CFTPA. That album similarly upped the fidelity, drawing on folkier influences and relying on the sort of rollicking piano that Ashworth eschewed earlier in his career. It’s for this reason that claims of upped fidelity on A Shut-In’s Prayer are a bit off base. If anything, it seems to represent a return to the sound of Etiquette his 2009 release. It’s a little lo-fi, but nuanced enough that you can tell he put a fair amount of consideration into the production decisions.

As far as the actual songs themselves go rather than the overarching production scheme, Ashworth maintains his uniquely melancholic songwriting voice. Infusing each song, as per usual, with its own stories and characters in a more literal way than most songwriters will often attempt. Ashworth has never really dealt in obfuscation or obscurities, instead presenting straightforward tales of downtrodden folk in his characteristic deadpan. “Riot Grrls” certainly exemplifies the successes of this style. Pairing piano chords with some minimal drums and intoning half memories of summers working at movie theater where he and his coworkers drank “gin in solo cups” and “the projectionist gave [them] weed sometimes.” Whether its actual memories that Ashworth is imparting or just the memories of a character he has createdas he is often want to do — but it’s little details like the ones mentioned above that lend the track, and consequently the album as a whole receives an intimate personal touch that many more prominent acts fail to lend.

Though he’s deep into his career at this point, with this recent name change, A Shut-In’s Prayer is a record that could easily (and unfairly) slip under the radar. With the solid songwriting, as exemplified above in “Riot Grrls” (and certainly present throughout) and some of the most interesting production of his entire career he’s released an album that eclipses much of his work to date. It may not be enough to convert those already opposed to Ashworth’s minimalist sound, but for the uninitiated, A Shut-In’s Prayer should provide a suitable introduction to one of the more interesting songwriters of our time.