Like many of his peers in the New Weird America of the early aughts, Raymond Raposa has made a career out of exploring what “folk music” means in the 21st century. His albums are characterized by somber medleys of country, gospel, and Americana shot through with space-aged synth and the kind of sax solos you’d expect to hear in the score of a Lethal Weapon movie. But if his previous albums have tested the elastic boundaries of folk, Decimation Blues, his sixth full-length record as Castanets, snaps them outright.
The opening tracks expand upon Raposa’s flirtation with electronic rhythms and hip-hop sensibilities, hinted at in songs like “Worn from the Fight (with Fireworks)” from 2009’s Texas Rose, the Thaw, and the Beasts. “It’s Good to Touch You in the Sunlight” ambles on stage with a programmed hip-hop backbeat, sounding like something that Odelay-era Beck might have concocted were he possessed of a minimal streak. This disarmingly relaxed introduction sets the listener up for the skittery splash of cold water, “Be My Eyes.” For an artist whose work is often characterized by temperate pacing and quietude, the song feels icy, alien. Driven by a rapid, mercilessly repetitive rhythm, Raposa smears it with layers of echo-y vocals that linger like chemtrails. From there, we loop back into more familiar territory, but only for a time: we are diverted from humble guitar-driven melodies into ghostly synth compositions (“To Look Over the Grounds”) and songs built around fractured collages of samples (“My Girl Comes to the City”).
Raposa’s been recognized in the past as a gifted lyricist, and he acquits himself admirably on Decimation Blues. In his best moments, he’s able to elicit a surprise or two from a carefully-chosen phrase or incongruous image, like the first verse of “Out for the West,” where he describes the experience of buying a Vanity Fair from Value Village. Yet there’s an opaqueness to many of the songs that makes it difficult to make narrative sense of his fragmentary vignettes.
Now more than 10 years into his career, Raposa should be admired for the patience with which he has honed his craft. Decimation Blues examines with more boldness some of the possibilities hinted at in his previous recordings and brings them shuddering to life.