Lack of diversions led Castanets to sonic leap

Picture this: it's dawn in the Nevada desert, you've been driving all night, and as you come over a rise there's this motel sign glowing against the fading dark. You pass by, but as you do, you catch a glimpse of a dusty courtyard and a palm tree or two, and it occurs to you that here's a modern-day oasis, a place of refuge on the side of the highway.

Something very much like this happened to singer-guitarist Ray Raposa on a recent tour with his band Castanets, and in his case he held on to that image, eventually coming back to discover more. The result is the fourth Castanets CD, City of Refuge, which was recorded mostly during a monthlong stint in that Overton, Nevada, motel. Paradoxically, Raposa found that the area's lack of stimulating diversions led to a creative leap.

"There was not much else to do," he says, reached on a bandmate's cellphone during a Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, tour stop. "I mean, there was nothing else to do. Not that distractions or whatnot have been a problem with regards to recording in the past, but the lack of them certainly was an asset. And, really, I enjoy the rare stretches of my life where I can be left to my own devices and not be at the grace or the mercy of other folks. So some time alone was welcome."

Even though a variety of other performers, notably Raposa's Asthmatic Kitty labelmate Sufjan Stevens, later added their own touches to the new disc, City of Refuge is very much the sound of one man examining his relationship to music, love, and the spiritual world. Old hymns rub up against new ballads, interspersed with twangy guitar interludes and low-key found-sound creations: in its intimacy and diversity, Raposa's creation is very much of a piece with those earlier masterpieces of outsider art, Moby Grape founder Skip Spence's Oar and Pink Floyd spark plug Syd Barrett's The Madcap Laughs.

Raposa doesn't dismiss the comparison. "I'm familiar with Oar," he says, "but I carried a really big chip on my shoulder about Pink Floyd for the longest time, and that carried over to the Syd Barrett records, although I knew that I should listen to them. I'm saving those for later on, I guess. But I think Oar is pretty incredible."

How these songs will sound when Raposa and his band bring them to Vancouver, though, is anybody's guess.

"They're pretty malleable," explains the New York City-based musician. "I guess the idea is to perform them in the way that's going to best serve the tone of the evening. Sometimes they're louder, sometimes they're quieter, sometimes they have very bad guitar solos, and sometimes they have jokes in the middle—this standup-comic routine I've been working on. I think that's the most honest way of doing it, you know—aside from the fact that I'd probably be bored to death if I had to do the same thing from night to night."

Castanets plays the Media Club on Tuesday (November 11).