Secret dioramas: Casiotones specific, if not new

Casiotone for the Painfully Alone
Twinkle Echo

Twinkle Echo, the new CD by Casiotone for the Painfully Alone (on the Tomlab label), is a self-contained world. Its heart is its own sleeve, and its triumph is a small one. Its strict aesthetic is appealing and unpretentious: straightforward, heartfelt, and youthful mini-pop performed on cheap keyboards with tinny drumbeats.

It's a one-man act, using minimal elements for maximum effect. The songs are two- or three-chord catchy, often taking the form of a narrator talking to his characters. The kids want to leave school, the girl's heart is broken... it's nothing new, just like the sound of the Casio. But it's so specific that it will hold up within the self-absorption of the young, and the nostalgia of the old.

It seems that anyone could make this music, and yet so few CDs share this sound that it has a surprisingly evocative effect: warm bass and trebly flange that audio distortion amplifies, nodding beats and romantic chords.

Take the irresistible "Jeane, If You're Ever in Portland." Somehow, its distant antecedent seems to be the Simple Minds' "Don't You Forget about Me."

Poor fidelity distances the listener from the music, like a memory; we glance from a moving car or read from a torn diary (the songs feel even shorter than they are). The lyrics are immersed in relationship histories, but they're not summations or photographs; they're stories that our narrator can't quite bring himself to finish.

"It's just miles... miles and miles and miles...." The lyrics are moving, primarily due to Owen Ashworth's performance. His voice is quietly controlling, conversational and melodic, but not particularly emotive apart from the amp hiss surrounding it. But it's so well-timed in delivery.

The seconds between phrases make up the primary texture for each song; it's a dramatic emphasis. Ashworth doesn't sound like an actor, but the music feels like a stage, flat and dressed in shorthand, more mood than melody. Really, you're just waiting for Ashworth to read to you.

It's hard to imagine much of an audience for such an endeavor. CFTPA is unapologetically simple and repetitive; home taping was more popular 10 years ago, and bedroom-pop songs about Smiths fans seem a bit easy to dismiss.

Our town probably has enough listless, Scrabble-playing college students to enjoy this record (and Mr. CFTPA is coming to town Friday). And yet it isn't as if pimps, hustlers, and club-wreckers are the only people who listen to the radio anymore; I think this record is convincingly its own animal, and one you'll want to befriend.