Rating: 4/5The name Raymond Byron and the White Freighter might sound like a high-seas children’s fable, but Ray Raposa’s newest project is hardly fit for young ears. In this case there’s not much in a name: the Castanets frontman fills his songs with foreboding imagery and scummy characters throughout the frequently fatalistic Little Death Shaker. Indeed there are no kiddie tales to be found on this record, its collection of road-weary drifters, barroom seductresses and dead-of-night drivers leading rough lives worthy of Springsteen but minus any traces of dignity or noble intentions.
The album’s initial couple songs are spirited blasts of hard-edged Americana and rank among the most straightforward rock songs the Castanets’ founder has written. Opening track “Allegiance” is a crunchy rocker that showcases Raposa’s typically skewed humor. It’s a mixture of bravado and bruises: “I woke up feeling bold as shit/ A little sore and a little sick.” The title song is one of general sordidness; it’s easy to imagine that its combination of dingy bar/sexy girl/dead-end dude will end poorly for everyone involved. In his usual worn, dusty voice, Raposa sings with a sleazy sneer that suggests he’d be perfectly fine with that. The sedate and twangy “Some Kind of Fool” is just as nasty, its speaker giving a less than sincere, and borderline misogynistic, apology to the woman he’s clearly wronged.
Shaker’s tone becomes even darker and its scope more expansive as it progresses, starting with “Turnpike/Bedsheet,” a vividly written and utterly lonely travel song of wooded pines, desert sky and, of course, bars. Raposa likewise evokes this sense of distance and isolation on “Meridian, MS,” which slowly develops against a backdrop of steel guitar and piano. Small towns with names like Jackson, Clinton and Edwards roll by as we’re left to wonder who these two travelers are or why they’re fleeing. Raposa offers the listener just enough to imply disaster awaits: “Zero visibility/…Honey, here comes the storm,” he warns. The moody and sinister “Don’t That Lake Just Shine” and “State Line” are easily the tensest songs in the artist’s catalog to date, the former as mysterious and menacing as a traditional murder ballad and the latter a distortion-heavy nine minute road song jammed full of drugs, deceit, paranoia and inevitable reckoning. “We were trying to outrun/ What could not be outrun,” Raposa gruffly states.
An interesting pair of cover songs are included, the first a faithful rendering of Dan Reeder’s “You’ll Never Surf Again” – likely the bleakest and strangest surf song ever recorded – and Kate Wolf’s “You’re Not Standing Like You Used To,” sung by Talia Gordon and ostensibly an answer song for the asshole of “Some Kind of Fool.” It’s appropriate that the album ends with the sparsely arranged “Allegiance 2,” a prostrate whimper of a prayer from someone who’s discovered – probably too late – that his bastard behavior has finally caught up with him. Raposa has sometimes failed to reign in his idiosyncrasies in Castanets, but as a storyteller of a seedy, drunken and dimly-lit America, on Little Death Shaker he’s nothing short of exceptional.