At least three listens are required to understand where Castanets is going with “City of Refuge.” The album starts as a series of electronic beeps and the folky twang of a guitar. They’re unconventional, and definitely not enough to sell you, but the concept is novel enough to merit a further listen, and a few minutes in it is clear that you won’t be disappointed.
Castanets is the solo project of San Diego’s Raymond Raposa, a 30-something hippie-type who looks like he’s stepped out of an old Western, mustache and all. “City of Refuge” is his fifth expedition into a genre known in some circles as “new weird America,” and it doesn’t look like he’s turning back. It all works so well for him: His quirky persona is the perfect vehicle for dragging the folk genre into the new millennium by its shoestrings.
“City of Refuge” was written and recorded in a small motel room in an unimportant location, and it’s that unpolished sound that makes Castanets’ work so authentic. Raposa has created the dusty folk record that is the quintessential soundtrack of any trip out West, revamped with the modern fixings of electronica and synth. “City of Refuge” was created to be a raw collection of folk tales combined with Allison Krauss’ “I’ll Fly Away” — the West personified — but virtually guaranteed to be like nothing you’ve heard before. It really is a brilliant concept: the merging of two spheres, one a lost world of old West legends, the other an ethereal world of the newest, most futuristic computer beeps and atmospheric synthesizer. The sound isn’t supposed to be the studio-processed garbage that has spoiled so many indie-folk aficionados, and going into the album with a clean-cut attitude will only leave the listener confused and disappointed.
Initial skepticism at the concept of “folktronica” is replaced by surprise when Raposa’s voice transcends the album’s preliminary new-age ambiance. It soon becomes clear that Raposa’s voice was made to sing songs like these. It has a morose Western edge that is eased by the otherworldly synthesizer, and by guitar melodies that alternate between strumming and finger-picking. For all its bizarre instrumentation, “City of Refuge” sounds anything but artificial and constructed. Each song is a search for the place alluded to in the title, embodying Raposa’s earthy lyrical references to the Garden of Eden, sung on top of the elemental echoes of the synthesizer and the animalistic howls of the guitar.
A concept album like this could easily have been a bust, but “City of Refuge” is the rare case in which an artist has both vision and the talent to bring that vision to life.