Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Alone together: CFTPA at the Knit

Laal is a big fan of the one-man-band Casiotone for the Painfully Alone, and she and I went to hear him (i.e., Owen Ashworth) at the Knitting Factory this evening. During the show I was thinking about something: how many times he must have been discouraged by a person or situation and how many times he must have ignored it in order to become successful with this project.

I'm not slagging on what he does at all; I actually think it's pretty brilliant. If you've never heard it, try New Year's Kiss. As you can hear, CFPTA is intimate, seemingly confessional pop set to cheap-sounding, but somehow emotion-packed synth beats and keyboard melodies. It's intensely affecting and sometimes disturbing, as if Ashworth had been reading your journal or something. But anyway, to get back to what I was saying, the presentation is utterly artless, i.e., onstage you've just got this awkward-seeming dude mumbling in an unspectacular voice and fiddling with his electronic gadgets.

I'm sort of tripping over what I want to say here, but what I mean is this: the seams are all there, right in front of you, if you want to point them out, i.e., that this dude is not a star in any traditional sense. He would flunk out on American Idol or in any forum by which talent is measured by a conventional yardstick, therefore it stands to reason that at some point or another--touring before he was well-known, say, or playing his music for an unsympathetic relative--he was discouraged, maybe even embarrassed, i.e., someone or something gave him cause to think that making these songs wasn't worth it. It simply has to have happened.

But he didn't give up, obviously, because he was up there at the Knit kicking ass and holding the room rapt. People were shouting requests (luckily, he honored ours, for Laal's fave "Tonight Was a Disaster") and professions of love; they were laughing along to his quirky banter, which was as charming and beautiful as the music.

I'm not usually big on the whole adorably awkward indie-rock aesthetic, summed up so well by the somewhat nauseatingly quirky "Juno" and similar recent cultural artifacts. There's definitely a little of that vibe with CFTPA, but there's also a deep, deep sincerity. He seems to singing about people he knows, but even if he's not, he's got a real sympathy for mundane joy and trauma, an ear for the inner dialogues of young romantics: the delusions they subject themselves to, the shames, the hopes, etc.

I don't think it's an exaggeration to call what he does brave. I think it would be one thing if he was all self-deprecation, but he's an entertainer and he knows he's good at it. At one point while calling for requests, he said he was happy that people knew "his catalog." No one who lacked confidence in their project would refer to their "catalog." Ashworth may be awkward, but he's not insecure, and this is what I find really exciting about CFTPA. He used the tools he had at hand--cheap electronics, a voice almost exactly like the one he speaks in (though with just enough of a melodic push to trace out a hook) and a gift for behavioral observation--and ran with it.

It's one of those acts that makes you want to say, "Anyone could do that" or "What makes him so special?" But that's the deceptive, or maybe artful, part: He only *seems* like a regular dude...

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