I wasn't a huge fan of that whole Devendra Banhart/Sufjan Stevens freak folk thing when it first reared its weird beard a few years back. It seemed hyper contrived and, well, real hippy-dippy. Lazy, patchouli-scented psychedelia. No thanks.
In the years since, I find that 1) I still don't like Banhart, 2) I've developed an appreciation for Stevens's baroque pop abilities, and 3) some of the bands thrown into the freak folk basket I actually really enjoy. Castanets would be one of the latter, essentially a one-man show fronted by Brooklynite-by-way-of-San Diego Raymond Raposa that's put out some highly haunting and resoundingly pretty albums since first surfacing in 2003. It's pretty simple stuff, but inventive, and delivered with an intensity that manages to stick with you long after the album's ended.
I started following Castanets with their 2004 release Cathedral, and was immediately drawn in by Raposa's odd, and at times lazy, approach, which seems to mask desperation with weariness. He's got a far-from-perfect singing voice, an unsteady, creaky tenor that brings to mind Will Oldham. In fact, Castanets (like much of the freak folk movement, to my ears) treads a lot of the old Palace and Bonnie "Prince" Billy ground, but does it in a pretty compelling way. Plus, Cathedral has a habit of moving from high-lonesome wind-blown stagger to tempos and volumes which nearly qualify as rocking out, which keeps the record interesting and the listener awake.
The LP opens with a wheezing horn section on the verge of collapse, propped up with a ghostly organ and gently plucked guitars as Cathedral 2 makes its deliberate way -- via occasional electronic squelches and an unsteady snare -- into the world. You know what you're getting into at first listen: pretty, shadowy folk with a spectral edge played at mid-to-low speed. Luckily, the rest of the album manages to stay in this mold without boring anyone to tears.
"Industry and Snow" picks up the tempos quite a bit, with madly strummed guitars, more unhinged electronic noise, and excited harmonicas emerging from the simple toy piano assisted verses. "You are the Blood" is one the album's best tracks, turning echoey boy-girl vocals, a steady thumping rhythm section, and shimmery open chord into a beautiful elegy, Raposa singing to his partner, "You are the blood/ Flowing through my fingers/ All through the soil/ Up in those trees," as a spooky horn section floats through the room.
No Light to be Found is an epic devastation, a starkly unfurling dirge in the old timey murder ballad tradition, kept aloft by Raposa's heartfelt delivery, a tale of loss and regret resting atop a gently chiming guitar line and little else. "Take me down to your river/ I want to see how it runs/ Down to your river, darlin'/ I want to know just how it runs," Raposa pleads before worrying, "But if that man/ Waits on the path/ Then I know for good/ That I'm done." The power's all in the speaking, Raposa's voice sounding so exhausted, worn out by emotion and love and despair.
The guitar solo at the 1:29 mark of Three Days, Four Nights is a hidden gem, an economical little display of skill and timing which makes the song, already a standout, that much better. "As You Do" is downright sunny, a loosely sauntering ballad with a nice countryesque feel and an easy melody. "The Smallest Bones" is a mournful hymn, holding a dark grace in its sorrow. Closer "Cathedral 4" ends things on a surprising note, employing a snappy electrobeat to lighten the mood in the LP's final moments, sparkling dawn rays bringing the inky night to a close.
Cathedral is a quietly powerful record, ideal for fans of Will Oldham, Black Heart Procession, and other sinister-minded balladeers. If you like your songs creaky with a side of ominous, then Castanets are for you.