Casiotone for the Painfully Alone traffics in these small triumphs. Owen Ashworth (the sole member) employs the production values and emotional frailty expressed in the name, but forgoes the bleeps and static of battery-powered keyboards for warm chords that modulate with the shakiness of the machine. It’s a beautiful flaw. Live, Ashworth recreates his songs through bass-heavy programmed beats that had more than a few people dancing, then shuffles his keyboards (I counted at least 7) to add some live instrumentation.
Constantly holding the mic too close to his mouth, Ashworth — newly relocated to Chicago — performs like a cable repairman on “The Gong Show;” methodical but uneasy. His collection of equipment spills wires everywhere, and as he sings downtrodden tales of idle young people he grips the mic like a dictaphone while casually inspecting his cables and moving keyboards around. He’s busy playing, singing, and preparing, but without any of the hows-he-do-it? fanfare of solo shows. Ashworth opened with “Cold White Christmas,” featuring the wonderfully dry lyric, “Beer for breakfast…who’s gonna scold,” which Ashworth sings in his resigned baritone. “Feather down, the nights get so cold,” with an emphasis on the pillow; this is how Casiotone tells a yarn.
Every song is thrilling. Ashworth pulls mostly from last year’s sleeper Etiquette, reworking the poppy “Scattered Pearls,” making “Young Shields” even more menacing, and replacing the steel guitar of “Nashville Parthenon” with epileptic electronic shrieks. Each song is epic in its minute description, mirroring the often grandiose movements of Ashworth’s cheap keyboards.
Early in the set, Ashworth started generating a heartrending glow out of a synth that slowly revealed itself as the opening strains of “Streets of Philadelphia.” What we got was a dead-on cover of the Springsteen Oscar-winer, Ashworth reveling in the songs seismic shifts and making them his own. There’s a universal beauty in that sound of Springsteen’s melodrama, and Ashworth translates that to his two keyboards, sharing in the same sonic blanket. It sends shivers down your spine, warms you in ways no space heater ever could and lets you imagine, without irony, that your twice-a-day struggle to walk a few blocks is the most important event in the world.