Casiotone for the Painfully Alone's Owen Ashworth sounds like he's in dire need of a friend. To listeners, the 29-year-old San Francisco native exudes the air of a hopeless romantic holed up his bedroom, his floor littered with broken Casio SK-1s and ready-to-be-pawned drum machines instead of crumpled-up balls of chicken scratch.
"Casios are such ubiquitous instruments, and I think there are as many homes with Casios in them as guitars," Ashworth explained from Chicago, where he now lives. "I feel like those sounds are ingrained in people's adolescent subconscious, and they're the cheapest and most accessible form of a musical instrument in a lot of households."
Since 1997, Ashworth has coupled blithe electronic dissonance and Atari-effected percussive treatments with husky spoken-narrative vocals, generating two-minute compositions that sound like pages torn from a diary. Almost on the fringes of satire, his dream pop melancholia conjures fictional characterizations that most think reflect Ashworth's personal life: a stargazer prowls through the Safeway aisles for his Rice Dreamdrinking vamp, an escapist searches for his beach-cruiser biker hipsteress. His new split 7-inch with Foot Foot, "It's a Crime" (Oedipus), bears witness to this as Ashworth laments, "It's plain to see / That boxes of candy will make her sigh / But confidentially / They'll just rot her pretty teeth and it's a crime / Yeah it's a crime / That you're kissing on that girl for all to see / And it's a crime / That she's going home with you and not with me."
Such intimacy makes it easy to confuse the singer and the song. "I think it could be frustrating for Owen to have people think, as I did, that the narrator in his songs is actually him," Ashworth's friend Sarah Han, an editor at the San Francisco Chronicle, e-mailed. "It might be him sometimes, but getting to know him better personally and hearing how his narrative skills have broadened in his later songs, I realized that Owen is just a good storyteller."
"I definitely like the narrative aspect" of songwriting, Ashworth said. "What makes me want to make music in the first place is to be able to tell stories and sort of prop up this weird, sonic environment for a couple of characters to live in."
CFTPA releases of late, however, sound like Ashworth is ready to pull the batteries out of those keyboards and give his poetic escapades a new soundtrack. On Tomlab albums such as Answering Machine Music (1999) and Twinkle Echo (2003), CFTPA's fractured synth pop captures the sonic cacophony of Big Black and the analog-fraught lo-fi-isms of Young Marble Giants. But with 2006's Etiquette (Tomlab), Ashworth implements pedal steel guitars, pianos, and strings into his arsenal, birthing a new challenge. The acoustic vim of "It's a Crime" has him sounding more like Steve Forbert than Stephin Merritt. Though the single lacks the digital squalls of CFTPA's previous efforts, its raw spirit exhibits a folk soul sentimentality with its rustic strummed chords, a path Ashworth described as "traditional American songwriting."
"What's nice about being on my own and being the boss is that I can try all sorts of strange things," he revealed. "I'm more interested now in arrangements and toying with the variables that I had set as off-limits on my first record."
And speaking of American songsters, a certain Paul Simon received the Ashworth treatment late last year when CFTPA's electro-fueled "Graceland" 7-inch (Rococo) was released. Assembled with a barrage of machine gunlike drum noise and grimy synths, the track flaunts the classic Casiotone strut. "I covered 'Graceland' because it's a great song and I have a personal, lifelong connection to it," Ashworth said. "Every time I got in the car with my parents, it always seemed to come on the radio."
Following his spring US tour, Ashworth will embark on a summer stateside jaunt during which he will be joined onstage by San Diego's the Donkeys. He plans on recording his next full-length this fall, and some of the songs now being rehearsed with the band will probably make it on to the album.
Until then, one can only hope Ashworth will find friends among his listeners and will always have a shoulder to lean on. *
CASIOTONE FOR THE PAINFULLY ALONE
With Page France and Headlights
Fri/23, 9 p.m., $12
Cafe du Nord
2170 Market, SF