The Castanets seem to be a band that realizes that long before country was associated with the glitz of Nashville, it was a folk music that expressed the shadowy underbelly of a hopelessly destitute underclass, a catalogue of drunken love songs, murder ballads and desperate paeans to God for salvation from all the sins that occurred between Monday and Saturday. And although psychedelia and country have rarely found themselves in the same room since the “cosmic cowboy” music of the ’60s, the Castanets intertwine the mournful roots of country with a dark, druggy atmosphere far removed from the backward guitars of a half-decade ago, putting them closer to the shadowy folk of contemporaries like The No Neck Blues Band.
The Castanets play music for the drowning; banjoes and organs swirling in a druggy miasma, blending with the mysterious clanks and staccato scrapes of metal on metal, fading out into nothingness as one sinks to the bottom of some primordial swamp. “Cathedral 2 (Your Feet On The Floor Sounding Like The Rain)” opens the album perfectly; a fog of organs creeps out from the stereo pierced by the wild howling of a distorted saxophone. It’s a ghostly funeral dirge of a song with minimal percussion and the subdued voice of lead singer-songwriter Raymond Raposa, assuring us that it’s “All right to want more than this,” although the vacant despair in his voice seems to assure us that this longing is a futile one.
Cathedral continues along in a similarly chilling and mesmerizing fashion. In between the zombie horn section and phantom pianos of “You Are the Blood” through to the subtly expansive gospel of “Cathedral 4 (The Unbreaking Branch and Song)” there is a tenuous hope that offsets the pervasive desolation of Cathedral. The songs themselves reflect that hope is an unpredictable beast. At any moment they can drift into ethereal beauty or just as easily descend into droning feedback and rusty, sinking-ship percussion. In fact, the only misstep on Cathedral comes with the rather conventional statement of content, “As You Do,” a more typical country ballad that, while pretty and serviceable, breaks the claustrophobic tension that distinguishes The Castanets from their alt-country peers. Still, Cathedral is an alluring, desolate album that convincingly explores the ambiguous intersection of a despair born of human fallibility and the fragile faith which holds the key to deliverance, just as the ancient gospels and austere ballads of country music did a century ago.