One frightening press release mentions the Pet Shop Boys as comparator to Casiotone For The Painfully Alone, aka Owen Ashworth, which sits in a curious fashion next to the Bright Eyes and celebral Smog references name-dropped below his details. The fact that Ashworth's use of electronic music isn't some shitty, shallow embrace of crass keyboard noise but a thorough, low-key, beautiful exploration of beats and sounds, along with his capacity for lyricism, results in joyous invention like the perfect design of a quietly buzzing hive.
It isn't easy, singing about malaise and inertia without slipping into the kind of conversational anti-folk that swiftly wreaks of self-absorption, or the dumbing down of profundity that makes tweenie idiots think that telling the rest of the human race about some boy they groped at an under-18 night at Underworld will win them a Mercury prize. Influences abound in his music like beards at an ATP weekend, but it is the muted nature of Ashworth's performance that wins you over, his heavy, deep voice gently carving a valuable, story-laden niche in a genre that is overspilling with wannabes, tempted in by the perceived ease of making something of worth.
Whereas Bright Eyes can sound self-indulgent, Ashworth manages to come across as witty and thoughtful, the keyboard sounds also working to avoid the whiney sensation the former can produce. The beat is muted and, in the dark quiet space, often sounds like someone's heart, ranging from a gentle ticking on a sunsetting San Fran sidewalk to a weightier, falling-in-love pounding. It's hard to explain how music (as opposed to lyrics) can be specifically visual, but listening to Ashworth, you feel like you're in a film, an arthouse take in a thoughful cosmopolitan space, something understated but meaningful. Perhaps it is the lack of pretension, and the consequent assumption - one that feels utterly natural - that this is a performance of truth.
The result of this mixture of wit, honesty and electronic sounds is hard to capture; the coherent end point is elusive, but as music washes over the room like the quiet start up of a car engine at dawn, you get the feeling that men bigger and sweatier than Ashworth could weep at the discovery of his sound. Tangents of loss and fragmented happiness are shaken out like clean linen until it is apparent that he is making something quite beautiful, this tall, bearded baritone and his stories. Towards the end Ashworth is joined by his bandmates, but it feels better when he's alone, a big, oracular, bear-like story teller.
Image from Swansea Photographer's photostream under the Creative Commons Licence.