Advance Base - A Shut-In's Prayer
On first listen, Advance Base seems little more than a New Game+ of Casiotone for the Painfully Alone, Owen Ashworth's previous pseudonym. Ashworth hung up the Casiotone mantel with 2009's Vs Children, closing the door on a decade of delicate songwriting backed by lo-fi, sometimes quite harsh out-of-the-box keyboard sounds and programmed drums.
After a couple of wilderness years, Ashworth timidly invites himself back into the fold with A Shut-In's Prayer, a collection of delicately-written songs backed by programmed drums...
But wait! This is where it gets interesting. With Advance Base, the simple drum machine beats are more like metronomes than anything - sometimes accompanied by some light percussion - for songs built around twinkling, pretty electric and upright piano with brushes of autoharp. It conjures up more an image of the lonely romantic spending an evening, possibly by candlelight, playing love-lorn ballads at the piano; as opposed to Casiotone's nerd sat in his bedroom, tinkering with his keyboard.
A Shut-In's Prayer maintains much of what's great in Ashworth's previous musical endeavours. He is a master of putting across distinct characters and stories in his songs, the ying to John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats' yang. On this album even more, the more heartbreaking tunes (from the off-set on opener 'Summer Music': "She left with my happiness," he recalls, to the backing of the "kitchen boombox") sound like they're actually coming from Ashworth himself. The traditional instrumentation probably helps, compared to Casiotone's...well, casio tones, which made everything seem a little more...synthetic? Sort of how CGI in a film never looks right to the human eye, but physical effects do.
Like a Jeffrey Brown comic set to music, Ashworth details family troubles ("My sister and I, we don't see eye to eye" he laments on the waltz-like 'My Sister's Birthday') and sings torch songs to old girlfriends. Then there's stuff written from perspectives of "characters", like 'Riot Grrls', which (lyrically) is something like Bikini Kill looking back on their 'Rebel Girl' from middle-age ("Meg and me were friends when we were in school / We were the only riot grrrls that we knew") or 'David Allen'. His characters are all fully-fleshed, with a Raymond Carver-alike realism.
There's something of Carver in the brevity of Ashworth's considered choice of wording, as well as is his simply-sung melodies. They could fool you into thinking that Ashworth is having to re-learn how to make music after his years off, but nothing could be further from the truth. Instead, it's the sound of someone entirely assured in his abilities, expressing big, poetic feelings in respectfully, deceptively simple terms.
Whether he's baring his soul or telling a story, Ashworth sounds like he's leaning in and confiding in the listener; understandable, as good parts of the album were recorded at Chicago Public Library. (Apparently they have rehearsal rooms in Chicago Public Library? Chicago sounds like the coolest) That also goes a way to explaining how quiet the album is, how softly-spoken Ashworth is throughout (I thought you weren't supposed to speak at all in libraries, let alone sing) and, crucially, how self-reflective a lot of the lyrics are; the "Advance Base" name, in fact, comes from the outpost in Antarctica where explorer Richard E. Byrd lived, alone, for five months in 1934.
Ashworth might not think he's moved on much - "I'm still at the same address", he sings on 'Summer Music' - but this collection of intimate, contemplative songs suggest the 35-year-old just keeps on growing.