City of Refuge, the fourth full-length from Ray Raposa’s avant folk project Castanets, comes armed with a mighty compelling back story: Waking to a desolate gas station in Overton, Nevada while driving through on tour, Raposa was struck with inspiration and decided to record the next Castanets album there. Holed up in a tiny motel room with co-producer Ero Gray, the pair emerged with three week's worth of raw field recordings. Delicate overdubs were added later by some of Raposa’s esteemed collaborators, including Sufjan Stevens, Jana Hunter, Scott Tuma, and Dawn Smithson (Sunn O)))).
The resulting record plays like a soundtrack to a non-existent film, skeleton-framed and dramatic. The mutant country aesthetic of Raposa’s discography remains intact, but while In the Vines, Castanet’s 2007 excursion, found Raposa guiding a bona fide band, the sound often swelling to massive proportions, City of Refuge is all together sparser, suggesting Calexico letting go of their pop traditionalism for pure sepia-toned wandering or the majestic experimental Americana of Earth’s recent The Bees Made Honey in the Lion’s Skull broken down to its core elements of drone, gospel, and minimal repetition.
The album begins with “Celestial Shore,” a short track evoking some backwoods congregation hall then moves into the delay pedal-twisting “High Plain 1,” its echoing beeps suggesting, with completely different sounds, the same mood as the opening track. “The Destroyer” and “Prettiest Chain,” a kind of two-song suite, introduce a central sound to the record -- a reverb heavy bass guitar being wrangled at the tuning knobs -- and finds Raposa singing for the first time on the album over tremolo guitars and Sufjan Stevens’ familiar banjo. “Refuge1” finds Raposa intoning the mantra of the album, "I’m gonna run to the city of refuge," a desperate plea. The brief “The Quiet” evokes the shimmering heroin gospel of Spacemen 3, before segueing into “Glory B,” which features Raposa moaning "So pull this car over dude/ Let’s see what you can do," and "We are fearless/ We are flesh/ We are wondrous" over a plucked nylon string acoustic guitar. The song is bolstered by Jana Hunter’s gorgeous cooing, suggesting some alternate universe Kris Kristopherson/Rita Coolidge duet, bathed in reverb and potential menace.
The album often contrasts, directly, the different spheres of the Castanets sound; “High Plain 3” is pure, sawing electronic noise, followed by a spirited, near-traditional reading of the hymn “I’ll Fly Away.” “The Hum” features harmonizing flamenco guitars, while the following song “Savage” places Raposa’s chanting vocals over discordant guitar and the aforementioned bass-noise terrorism. “Shadow Valley” finds Raposa turning his voice just out of key with mournful lyrics like "I swear your breath last night/ Sounded just like thunder/ I swear your breath last night sounded just like gunshots" and slides into “High Plains 2,” given again entirely to noisy soundscaping.
Unexpectedly, the album ends on twin notes of redemption and damnation. “Refuge 2” recalls the secular spiritualism of frequent Castanets collaborator Matthew Houck’s Phosphorescent, not just in its cocain references, but in the way it feels legitimately joyful. It recasts the lyrics of “Refuge 1” amidst Skynyrd references, taking the phrase and turning it on its side, revealing escape to the city of refuge as a necessary flight, and finding solace in a place far removed from the desolation of the world. “After the Fall” closes the album and works as a hazy Biblical metaphor, with Adam staring at the wall while Eve dresses in the wake of Man’s awakening to the nature of Good and Evil, employing him as the inn-keeper denying Joseph a room at the motel, perhaps the same motel in Nevada where City of Refuge was born. "If I’d known where we were going/ I might not have gone at all/ But there was no way of knowing/ After the fall" Raposa sings, noting that "The storms seem to last forever/ And I remember them all/ The only break in the weather/ Is the winter after the fall."
With each album, Castanets have managed to speak in hushed tones to the strange condition of man, one concerned with flesh and spirit, home and wanderlust. That City of Refuge serves so well as a soundtrack to some imaginary film has a lot to do with the quality of the music, but even more to do with Raposa’s uncanny ability to tap into such universally shared concerns; he’s soundtracking a movie we all feel like we’ve seen and might be in the middle of living.