On the Road
Limbeck lives, breathes rock’n’roll
Casiotone For The Painfully Alone heads South
PRETTY PILFERING: Ashworth sets “stolen” observations to lo-fi keyboard glimmer.
by Kevin Crowe
After waking up much later than they had originally planned—still drowsy from last night’s gig—Limbeck left Little Rock, Ark., and began the long slog towards New York. On the way, after picking up I-40, they pulled off the interstate around 10 p.m. That part of town, the intersection of Kingston and Northshore, wasn’t terribly busy that night. “We found a TGI Fridays,” says Patrick Carrie, guitarist, backup vocalist and self-described hippie. “I think that’s our biggest exposure to Knoxville so far.”
Limbeck, a quartet from Orange County, Calif., has been hitting the road regularly for the better part of four years. But after waking up without adequate sleep day after day and driving long distances and crashing—only to do it all over again—these guys have yet to show any signs of stopping. “It’s like we’ve built a home on the road,” Carrie says.
There’s a song on their new album, Let Me Come Home , which sums up their peripatetic spirit: “I like this city now that you’re in it / Sin City’s not a bad place to visit / I used to hate that city ... But now I like Sin City / It’s got you.” On the road, days away from home, these guys have treated each gig as an opportunity to experience America first hand. They’re not like the usual touring band that comes into town, hangs out in a hotel room, plays a set, and without so much as a good night Knoxville , splits. Limbeck makes the most of their travels, often billing the band as the “Kerouac of rock’n’roll.” Their quirky travel log can be found on-line, where their MySpace account links to more than 11,000 friends and fans.
“It’s really good to see friendly faces,” Carrie says. “It’s kinda like meeting good friends that we haven’t seen in a while. We’re in this band that travels America.... It kinda freaks us out in a really cool sense, to meet new people and see old friends as well.”
Their first album, Everything’s Great , may be one of the most poignant road trip albums to be recorded in the last few years. But their latest recordings have the maturity that only comes to those who have lived the rock’n’roll lifestyle, without approaching their art with the kind of pretension that has a history of enveloping many successful groups.
“We actually named it [the album Let Me Come Home ] in opposition to our first record,” Carrie says, as the rest of the band chuckles in the background at some remote Pizza Hut in middle America. “We’ve grown to appreciate home a lot more since we’ve been on the road.”
They’ve matured, and so has the music. When they first got together, about eight years ago, they were heavily influenced by the punk-rock, Lookout Records scene in California, as they worked to find their authentic voice. “We really just grew up,” Carrie says, adding: “We play what we’re comfortable with now.”
Robert MacLean handles the lead vocals and guitar work, backed by Justin Entsminger on the bass and Matt Stephens’ metronomic approach to percussion. It’s a tight sound, one that’s highly polished and precise, with a tinge of old-school country twang. They’ve been billed as alt-country, but Carrie and the rest of the band don’t stamp any style or genre onto their music. “I think we just call ourselves a rock band,” he says, “because it’s just a more general term.” Any stylistic vocabulary, it would seem, places undue limits on artistic possibilities.
It’s their attitude, not artistic classification, that defines their sound, which is akin to Lefty Frizzell, Johnny Cash or Whiskeytown in terms of authenticity. Unpretentious rock might be a good label, but even that doesn’t offer the freedom that Limbeck cherishes. “I saw it all,” Robert MacLean sings. “I saw you / I saw it all ... I saw you laughing.”
Piecing together their travels and making an album that’s a mosaic of memories and faces, Limbeck doesn’t offer any beatific revelations about life; they just sing about those complicated moments, the hardships that we face for no real reason other than the fact that we’re human. Like the wise fool in a Shakespearian drama or a learned drunk in one of Pynchon’s novels, Limbeck can laugh at the ineffable beauty found throughout America, with the stark realization that, no matter where you travel, people are always people. And there’s always something worthwhile out there.
“What we got now / is three-quarters of a twenty dollar bill / a whole lot of time to kill / and a long way to go,” MacLean sings, summing up their unusual, but highly romantic, outlook on life.
It may be a good idea to get to the show early, because there’s a good chance that a group of rugged, hairy and happy guys will be saddled on four barstools, waiting for another story to come along.
Who: Limbeck w/ Will Hoge and American Minor
Sweet ‘n’ Low
It’s not a competition, but here in Knoxville we tend to compare ourselves, musically and otherwise, to the other major cities in Tennessee. A friend from Memphis recently made a beery claim that anything truly Memphian as far as music is on its way out—the smoky blues dives giving way to the neon lights and wannabe-Elvises cluttering Beale Street. And while there’s a stimulating indie rock scene in both Memphis and Nashville, calling the latter the capitol of country music usually accompanies a sardonic sneer these days, unless you count big-arena boot-scootin’ and patriotic mullet-pleasing.
So it’s almost comical to hear a musician native to California romanticize the cities we’ve come to denounce. Well, maybe not romanticize as much as fantasize. “There’s something really mythical about that part of the country, the birth of all that music.” says Owen Ashford, the 28-year-old behind the one-man act Casiotone For The Painfully Alone, on a phone call from San Diego. Mythical? The hyperbole is understandable considering Ashford grew up sonically submersed, thanks to his parents, in the sweet music of Southern greats— Johnny Cash, Otis Redding, Willie Nelson.
By the way, the subject of the South doesn’t arise because Ashford’s tour stops here, but because he says he initially intended to set his most recent album, Etiquette , entirely in Nashville. Funny thing is, the keyboard-wielding electronic musician doesn’t take much at all from typical Tennessee musical tradition. And, having never lived here, he’s got a skewed vision of Tennessee that just might include shoeless rednecks who like to gay-bash and proselytize (OK, so maybe it’s not so skewed in some cases). Nonetheless, his regard for our state is endearing. Ashford’s endearing in general, with his muffled, shy-guy voice and furry beard to hide behind.
As far as protective camouflage, some might also accuse Ashford of hiding professionally, behind the gimmickry of purely keyboard-produced electronic dance music. But he was hailed as a lyrical genius on his first three albums, all of which pretty much stuck to that formula, and now, with Etiquette , he’s branching out and incorporating other instruments. Ashford describes his first two records as mates, one male and one female, and his third, Twinkle Echo , as the final element of a trilogy, bringing with it some creativity-stifling closure. “I felt really bummed out after I made that record and I didn’t know if I wanted to do music for a while,” he says, “So when I started this album I had to do a lot of things differently.”
Though Ashford wrote all the songs, and the Casio’s still there reminding you of the one you got for Christmas and never learned to play, Etiquette gets fleshed out through guest instrumentals. “A lot of the arrangements came from collaboration,” he says. “I knew I wanted strings and piano, and I also just had a lot of friends I wanted to bring in and get involved.”
Though Ashford originally intended to cover Paul Simon’s “Graceland,” using it as the centerpiece of the Southern-themed album, the only Tennessee reference left is the song “Nashville Parthenon,” a reverb-y keyboard track with a requisite lovelorn theme and a synthy-sounding, but real-life, pedal steel as the sweet-tea-sipping instrumental nuance. Though the song seems to be about a crumbled relationship, Ashford finds obscure inspiration in Nashville’s life-size recreation of the ancient Greek landmark. “I had visited the Parthenon when I was on tour in Nashville and I was struck by how bizarre it is,” he marvels. “I was with a friend and we were speculating on what it would be like to be gay in the South, and we thought of the Parthenon as this weird secret gay mecca.”
For the rest of the album, Ashworth crafts small intimate stories, destined either for a shimmering dance floor or for furtive moments, Casio-beats glistening like cigarette glows or shooting stars in the background. On “New Year’s Kiss,” Ashford builds up to that fateful lip-lock that comes once a year, “Not the way you’d imagined /on a balcony with champagne lips / but in a pantry ‘gainst the pancake mix.”
Ashford’s penchant for storytelling comes from a flubbed filmmaking background. He quit film school but, he says, “My songs are sort of conceived as short films—setting and character are really important to me, because a song needs a home.” So even though his Southern connection is a frayed musical rope, it suffices as a binding element on the record, if not always an outright image.
A highlight track, the Tom Waits-sounding piano moan, “Don’t They Have Payphones Wherever You Were Last Night,” seems to scream of Ashford’s own painful memory. But rather than documentary songwriting, Ashford professes a cut-and-paste style, splicing memories, visions and images to tell his stories. “It never really occurred to me that you have to tell an honest story,” he says. “I steal stories from friends and strangers all the time. I’ve never made a song that’s 100 percent true or 100 percent fiction—I steal from all over the place.”
Who: Casiotone For The Painfully Alone with The Donkeys, Matgo Primo and Twinkie Bots When: Wednesday March 15, 10 p.m. Where: Pilot Light How Much: $5