Advance Base, Sunday, Nov. 11, 8 p.m., $8–$10, The Pinhook, Durham, www.thepinhook.com
The most striking lyrics can be those that feel haunting as they capture specific, complicated emotions that can be otherwise difficult to put into words. Advance Base’s Owen Ashworth frequently achieves that hard-to-reach, eerie resonance. Even the boring, mundane, and ordinary elements of Ashworth’s fictional worlds are laid out in painstaking detail. While his characters remain cloudy and indistinct, the particulars of Ashworth’s stories—econolines, aquatoriums, coffee brewing, and crossword puzzles—offer intimate connections to his music.
Animal Companionship, which Ashworth released in September, presents Ashworth’s storytelling with unprecedented clarity, although the hook of his earlier material remains mostly intact. In the late nineties, Ashworth earned a devoted following under the name Casiotone for the Painfully Alone by pairing dreamy chords played through warbly electric keyboards with meditative, understated lyrics. Those hallmarks have carried over to Ashworth’s more recent work under the Advance Base moniker and endure even in this record, although these hazy songs are tinged with new murmurs of nostalgia and timelessness.
Since 2012, Ashworth’s focus has been running Orindal Records, a label named for the town of Orinda, California, where much of his family is from. The label is a passion project that promotes and showcases self-recorded artists and the “gentle weirdos and melancholic introverts” of the music world. Dear Nora, Julie Byrne, Karima Walker, and Lisa/Liza have all generated niche audiences of their own while abiding by a DIY ethos under Orindal’s wing. Orindal’s roster also includes Durham’s Autumn Ehringer, who issued her debut tape as Moon Racer, Is It Really a Secret?, earlier this year.
Ashworth says that running an experimental label is something he’s always wanted to do. But while Ashworth never stopped writing songs, he found his priorities shifting.
“It got to the point that I was finding [label-related work] more satisfying than working on my own music,” he says.
For Animal Companionship, however, Ashworth found the impetus he was looking for while collaborating with long-time friend and former bandmate Jason Quever, whose producing and engineering credits include records by Beach House and Cass McCombs. Quever produced Animal Companionship at a new studio in Los Angeles, and Ashworth describes the recording process as almost unbelievably smooth and efficient. After a week spent tracking demos in Los Angeles, Ashworth returned to his home in Oak Park, Illinois to let those ideas incubate for several months. It took just one more week of recording to complete the album.
What results is a collection of songs that is expertly restrained. There’s no clutter, superfluous instrumentation, or ornate gimmicks. Ashworth’s narrative-driven lyrics, sung in quiet, hushed tones hold added weight over lush synthesizers, the vintage hum of a Rhodes piano, and shuffling electric drum patterns.
The album’s tracks are broadly about love and longing for old friends, lost relationships, and even our pets. Ashworth jokingly admits that he tends to be a cat person. However, lately, he’s noticed the intense bonds many of his friends share with their canine companions. Animal lovers will find plenty of nods to dogs throughout Animal Companionship, but the album is really about how human relationships are augmented and framed by our pets—how pets often act as vessels for memories we can’t quite hold on to.
“The kind of love that people have for their pets … is a very specific type of thing in the way that, I don’t know, animals kind of become a proxy for different kinds of human relationships,” Ashworth explains.
The first track of Animal Companionship, “True Love Death Dream,” tells the heartbreaking story of a teenager who dies in a car crash and symbolically lives on through his girlfriend’s dog, in name and in spirit. “It was true love, don’t ever let them tell you any different,” Ashworth cries out over droning synthesizers. The album’s closing track, in which a woman sends messages to her dog over the answering machine to keep him company, is innocent, sweet, and pure. While animal-human relationships are at the heart of this album thematically, Gary, Indiana, and the Midwest more generally, act as the album’s geographic center.
“You see the worst part of Gary going through on the highway [toward Chicago],” Ashworth recalls. “It’s very striking, and you’re just kind of reminded of the perils of urban living. It’s, like, a lot of oil refineries and urban decay, and it’s rough.”
With the intention of breaking his stereotypes and assumptions of Gary and other cities along the Rust Belt, Ashworth vowed to spend more time in the area. While driving around and exploring, he found another side of the city that was beautiful, even in its ruggedness and brutality, which made its way onto the album. That juxtaposition is most apparent in “Christmas in Nightmare City,” which follows a lonely narrator as he or she wanders through a melancholic universe of refineries, gas stations, and college football games. The specifics of Ashworth’s songwriting, even when describing the mundane and trivial (“Stopped for half a tank of gas/plus some Skittles and a diet Sprite”), make these songs feel lived in and literary. The primary joy of these songs is unraveling their meaning and learning new insights hidden behind all the simplicity, which is something that Ashworth finds exciting as well.
“Sometimes, I’ll be at a show, in the middle of singing it and realize that maybe there’s something subconscious going on that hadn’t occurred to me,” Ashworth recalls.
The cover art for Animal Companionship features the work of Jessica Seamans and typography from Dan Black, who make up the Midwestern art duo LANDLAND. When Ashworth mentioned that he’d like to feature a dog on the cover, Seamans, who frequently creates grim horror movie posters asked, “Should it be, like, a sinister dog?”
Although Ashworth found the idea amusing, he explained that he had something different in mind for the record. He wanted the dog to be warm and approachable—a visual representation of man’s best friend.
“‘Kind eyes’ became the guiding principle for her,” Ashworth explains.
That’s the idea that Ashworth took to heart, too. Through perplexing life events, lonely despair, or painful memories, when a dog, ignorant of all the ills of the world, greets us with a wagging tail and kind eyes, it’s somehow the perfect relief, even if only for a few brief moments.