Adrift and lovin’ it

Pub date January 16, 2008
WriterTodd Lavoie
SectionMusicSectionMusic Features

It couldn’t have happened any other way, really: Ray Raposa, the wise-beyond-his-years voice behind the Castanets moniker, is chatting with me by phone from a motel room. As a chronicler of the wandering spirit and a champion of the blue highways who has spent many of his days on the road — ever since completing high school at 15 in order to roam the country by bus — Raposa is entirely qualified to discuss his latest disc, In the Vines (Asthmatic Kitty), from such familiar turf. Inevitable, even, if we’re willing to talk about such heady fare as fate — a subject about which, judging from In the Vines, Raposa has more than a few ideas. The album was inspired in part by a Hindu fable about being the victim of an unavoidable destiny, and it’s a theme that drifts specterlike among the ripples of pedal steel and squalls of electronic treatments that hover at the edges of Raposa’s troubled rasp. Look no further than the slowly unsettling opener, "Rain Will Come": "So it’s going to be sad, and it’s going to be long / And we already know the end of this song," he portends with the gravest of emphasis over a mesmerizing blues-folk acoustic guitar line before, in confirmation of such claims, the song explodes in shrieking, devastating electronic white-noise chaos.

And the other inspiration for In the Vines? Wandering, of course, and so a motel room it must be, then — in Portland, Ore., specifically — while Raposa assembles a new backing band for his upcoming West Coast tour. "You know, one day I sat down and counted," the songwriter says, chuckling. "And the number of places I mention on that album runs in the double digits, easily."

It’s a telling comment, but not without its complications: much of the Castanets catalog feels like a tug-of-war between the lure of the road and the desire to put down roots and build a community. Take "Three Months Paid," an intimate confessional on which Raposa reveals, "I was ready to settle down" — and even lists a few possible locales — over a plodding drum track while synths whirr and bleep in hesitation at the mention of domesticity. Above it all, an aching pedal steel floats onward and upward, much like the song’s narrator, who, intriguingly, manages to sound both relieved and rueful about his decision to keep moving on. Or perhaps neither emotion is involved and the singer merely acknowledges his fate.

"It’s a tough one — I get more writing done when I’m at home than on the road, but I get so much inspiration from roaming," Raposa explains. Having recently given up his Brooklyn, NY, apartment to accommodate a rigorous touring schedule, the former San Diego resident — "I can’t survive too long without seeing the ocean," he jokes of his bicoastal tendencies — sounds energized by his newfound freedom. After all, so much of the Castanets journey has been guided by a spontaneous, largely improvisational attitude, which has ushered in an impressive cast of collaborators over the years — ranging from labelmate Sufjan Stevens to kindred spirit Matthew Houck of Phosphorescent — and encouraged a willingness to incorporate elements of electronic ambience, free jazz, and noise rock into the spooky-country framework.

Such fearlessness also extends to the Castanets live experience. "I can’t imagine doing the same thing every night," Raposa asserts in explanation of his largely unscripted approach to performance. "For me, to do so would mean there’d be no authenticity, no spontaneity. No, I’d rather just let things go where they may."


With Sholi and El Olio Wolof

Mon/21, 9 p.m., $10

Cafe du Nord

2170 Market, SF

(415) 861-5016