City of Refuge
The result of three weeks alone in a Nevada desert motel room, City of Refuge, Castanets’ fourth full-length for Asthmatic Kitty (September, 2008), blazed into Ray Raposa’s mind with the rising sun. The idea came the morning after an overnight drive with tour companions from Oakland, CA, to Las Vegas, NV; waking in the back seat to a Nevada gas station dawn, Raposa said “here,” and as the drive progressed, so did his conviction that this was where he would record the next Castanets album.
He sought and found solitude in a mom and pop motel in Overton Nevada- unincorporated, two bars, no stoplight, home of The Lost City Museum – on the edge of Valley of Fire State Park (Moapa Valley to the indigenous peoples), an hour northeast of the surreal derangement of Vegas. Far from distractions and infused with the sense of isolation explored by the songs he’d written for the album, it proved the optimal backdrop. Minimal overdubs by friends Jana Hunter, Sufjan Stevens, Dawn Smithson (Jessamine, Sunn O))))), Scott Tuma (Souled American, Boxhead Ensemble), and co-producer Ero Gray were added later, but the silence of the sparsely populated region underscores the sounds of Raposa’s voice and instruments.
City, is many things, but amenable to a simple, generic description it’s not. Over the course of three albums and myriad EPs, Ray Raposa and cohorts have made a career of crawling out on tenuous limbs, but to the amazement of the crowd below, never falling off. To extend this hackneyed metaphor even further, they’ve been known to release their grip, sprout paper wings, and soar into the horizon through floating musical notation.
With an uneasy, asymmetric weave of sung songs, chants, electronic noise solos and spaghetti-western guitar interludes, City suggests a film soundtrack, with overture, mood-setting and plot-development songs, intermission (please remain seated, and ignore the guards at the exits), character studies, and themes of resolution and reconciliation. Ok, we’ve slogged into the muck of yet another tired metaphor, and there’s no way out but forward, so what the hell kind of movie is this anyway? Possibly a nocturnal, black and white contemporary desert western with characters real and imaginary, a failing motel on a little-used old highway, gas-well flares flickering far off in the night, the spirit-body of Lee Van Cleef watching from the shadows, a sliding eidetic road seen with closed eyes, the disturbing memory of an encounter that may or may not have been a dream, fallen bare wires crackling somewhere in the desert, the mingled odors of sagebrush smoke, candle wax, warm beer, and an overheated amplifier, and the howls of coyotes (or, perhaps, your brain). A narrative propelled by yearning, passion, dislocation, ambiguity, regret, false redemption, possible true redemption, cryptic symbolism and other art film obligatories, this time you’re liable to sit numb and silent through the credits as the theater empties (though you don’t have to- the guards have disappeared). The difference between Raposa’s landscape and more familiar backlot scenes might be this; you believe what you’ve heard and seen because your third ear intuits that he didn’t contrive any of it. City, then, is no longer only music, but emotional catharsis, and we, too, long for a City of Refuge.