Castanets – Cathedral

Castanets
Cathedral

Folk music’s recent proliferation on the underground scene has not been one of unified acceptance, but rather a coincidental movement of sub-genres that have once again captured indie-rock’s imagination. Iron and Wine has been aping the pop-folk of Simon and Garfunkel, Sufjan Stevens taking on the dangerously saccharine waters of Nick Drake, and free-folkers like Devendra Banhart have successfully recreated the nylon-stringed hippie aesthetic. These artists share little in common besides the “folk” tag, and it’s likely because of this that we don’t have one-million zine articles about the resurgence of folk music. Again, a coincidence.

Castanets hail from San Diego, and while frontman Raymond Raposa would like to think of Cathedral as an alt-country album (Raposa tested out of high school early and bused around the country, the sort of behavior that allows one to embrace “Americana”), it shares the same rattle and hiss of slow-folk monsters like Will Oldham and Jason Molina.

This is not to suggest that Castanets are somehow not Americana, nor that they’re trying to “revive” some lost genre of folk music or something ridiculous like that. In truth, Cathedral is an ambitious, well-planned, and ultimately very successful blend of leaking hymns, country dirges, and folk laments. Raposa isn’t quite as captivating as his peers, but the haunted atmospheres and strangely old-time vibe he concocts are strangely addictive.

“Cathedral 2 (Your Feet on the Floor Sounding Like the Rain)” opens up Cathedral, announcing both menacing intentions (a droning brass instrument gives way to brick-like acoustic guitar strums and an organ), as well as Cathedral’s “unified album” concept (a glance up and down the tracklist reveals a “Cathedral 3 (Make Us New)” and “Cathedral 4 (The Unbreaking Branch and Song)”). Track titles like this breed pretension like a Morrisey concert breeds fey, so immediately the burden is on Raposa to bring something heavier than just slow, high-minded folk music. For the most part, he does: “Cathedral 2” is such a slow crawl that it eradicates any thoughts of art-school mess. No one would creep along at this pace just for the hell of it.

The rest of the album, fortunately, varies the mood and tone exquisitely. Things never really get rollicking, but that’s not the point: The slow, rolling folk on Cathedral is exquisite in its crawl, in its dearth of truly memorable moments. It’s a hazy, autumnal record that makes 33 slow minutes feel like 10. Of course, to truly enjoy the record, you have to be able to enjoy lines like “You are the blood flowing through my fingers,” as well as myriad other solemn declarations. Raposa may not be pretentious, but he is deathly serious. “You are the Blood,” one of the more ominous tracks, brings the gloom with miniature harmonies, creeping, psychedelic lurches, and pulse-like drums.

That Castanets can move from a breathtakingly muddied swamp folk into the bright, optimistic chime of “Cathedral 4” speaks volumes about the band’s staying power. Raposa may have the sort of vague, drifter/genius background that will drive the dancers and jokers out of their minds, he also carries the same sort of slow magnetism that Oldham and Jason Molina have been conjuring for over a decade. The country and psychedelic flourishes simply add to the mix. Cathedral is an out-and-out success, an gripping record of age, emotion, and yes, America.