Advance Base Nephew in the Wild
(Orindal Records – August 21, 2015)
(Indie Pop, Bedroom Pop)
Review by Rob Bockman
There’s nothing less useful than the qualifier “underrated,” since it requires establishment of metrics, sources, and definitions straight off the bat; still, Owen Ashworth (Casiotone for the Painfully Alone, Advance Base) doesn’t get mentioned nearly enough in the Best American Pop Contemporary Songwriters pantheon. Nephew in the Wild, his second album under the Advance Base name, is another argument for his inclusion.
There are missteps–hyming “city” with “pretty” and “past” with “last” is disappointingly basic, and where Ashworth has always been brief and brusque in his lyrics, Nephew in the Wild often feels perfunctory where other albums were elegant. That mild demerit is balanced by the richness of the album’s music, though—as Ashworth evolves, his palette becomes far removed from the narrow and repetitive Casiosynths of his old moniker. The album vacillates between claustrophobic and tranquil—swinging from the loose and chiming “Trisha, Please Come Home” to the restrained “Nephew in the Wild.” Mirrored by the shifting narrative perspectives—Ashworth is known for his ambiguously gendered narrators aimlessly searching for some kind of freedom—and the secretly arresting sadness hidden under Ashworth’s aspirated croon, this mutability suggests the focal tragedy of the title track: that doomed contrast between “protected” and “feral.” In “Might of the Moose,” Ashworth is most direct in admiring the amount of damage man can exert and the amount the world can take—or even recover from when his back is turned: “I expected to find the beast embedded/In the windshield the way I’d left it/But there was just blood & glass on the smashed hood/I guess he came to and ran back through the wood.”
The moaning slide guitar and glockenspiel-esque taps of “Christmas in Dearborn” finally have Ashworth performing as he’s meant to—as high and lonesome as his warm and creaky voice will let him. Nephew in the Wild features Ashworth’s first honest-to-god country song in since “Jeanne, If You’re Ever in Portland” in “The Only Other Girl From Back Home,” but the album achieves apotheosis in “My Love for You is Like a Puppy Underfoot,” with its awkward and earnest phrasing (“my love for you is like a movie script/Doesn’t make sense to my friends when I describe it.”), gentle sweeps of synths that call back to Vs. Children-era Casiotone, and above all, a heart-sleeved and waifish sadness. It takes real talent to make yearning sound so loaded with irony, and of those who genuflect at the altar of Cole Porter and Stephin Merritt, Ashworth is one of the most capable. The problem is, of course, that predictable capability isn’t innovation; indeed, the bulk of the record is something we’ve heard before—the synthesis of Twinkle Echo and 2012’s Shut-In’s Prayer—but Ashworth is capable of truly startling imagery and a musical tenderness that holds incredible emotional appeal. There’s no one else doing what he does, even if he sometimes does it too comfortably. As a Cliff’s Notes version (and, indeed, at ten tracks and under thirty-six minutes, it’s very much a fleet and slim album) of the CftPA/Advance Base aesthetic, though, Nephew in the Wild is superb.
Tracks to Watch: “Pamela,” “Christmas in Dearborn,” “My Love for You is Like a Puppy Underfoot,” “Christmas in Milwaukee”
Tracks to Skip: “Summon Satan,” “Kitty Wynn”