Funniest thing happened when I slipped on First Light’s Freeze, the new album by Castanets- as I pressed play, the wind picked up a little bit. At first I didn’t notice, but as I kept walking, cold, dreary, vacant track after track passing by, the temperature actually dropped. By the time I was nearing the album’s end, the sunny Indiana day in which I had begun to listen to the CD had been replaced by vacuous arctic tundra. It snowed so hard every building was covered and by the time I got to “Reflecting in the Angles,” the album’s last song, I was left, alone, dying on a sheet of ice. And let me tell you, if you are EVER planning on enduring a slow, frostbitten death, I cannot recommend a more perfect soundtrack than First Light’s Freeze. Do not be fooled by the sticker on the album’s front that boasts an appearance from labelmate Sufjan Stevens, as this album could not be farther away from the energetic, usually chipper pop associated with Stevens. This is austere, it is sparse, and it is uninviting.
So what does it sound like? A singer/songwriter trapped in a frozen cabin all winter without outside contact, his only sources of sanity coming from a tape recorder, a drum machine, and a microphone. If Iron & Wine had been berated by all his friends and moved to Alaskato seek refuge. Elliott Smith’s winter vacation. On “Into the Night,” the album’s first substantial track (there are 5 pleasant mood-setting instrumentals among the other songs) songwriter and lead sing Raymond Raposa sings: “Let’s take a walk dear, into the murderous night.” It does not get any brighter from this point. “Good Friend, Yr Hunger” is a beautiful banjo led number, and is the closest the group gets to a conventional song, but lyrics such as, “friend I cannot befriend you true / in seeking out my light in you” show a solitude that betray the fleshed out arrangement.
The most remarkable song on the album, though, is the title track, which begins with carefully picked guitar and glockenspiel, which after a period of silence give way to Raposa’s hardened voice and the sound of water dripping, of ice melting, of some warmth, but the songs final line “The night is long / Come light,” leads to a vacant drum machine beat, a sign there will be no conclusion, and only after this do we find ourselves back with the guitar line that we began with, leaving our protagonist struggling through the night, no closer to day than when we met him. There is promise of a brighter period in the driving (well, for this album, at least) “No Voice was Raised,” which has Raposa’s voice buttressed by a delayed electric guitar and beautiful female vocal backing. Near its conclusion, the song gives way to a wall of Sonic Youth-esque noise, the least expected turn on the album, and one that clashes with the songs refrain, “no voice was raised / no song was sung.”
The album’s isolation (“I wanna get high on something / go dancing with someone,” are the most poignant lines from “Dancing with Someone (Privilege of Everything)”) is both its highest spectacle and its biggest flaw. There is little relief from the albums frigid tone, making the album much better as one large expression of a feeling than as a collection of individual tracks. However, if you’re the kind of person who spends all summer indoors with the blinds drawn, loathing every moment until the temperature drops, First Light’s Freeze could be the soundtrack to your next ice fishing or snow shoeing adventure.
(Asthmatic Kitty Records)