Raymond Byron and the White Freighter isn’t the first musical incarnation of one Raymond Raposa, whose first release as Castanets in 2004, Cathedral, attests a solid history of folk and country influences with all the bells and whistles (metaphorically speaking) that Little Death Shaker lacks. As Castanets’ only real member, Raposa began mixing drum machines and guitars, playing off the electronic and the acoustic – the old and new – much like long-time Asthmatic Kitty label mate and fellow freak-folk champion Sufjan Stevens.
With many artists, deciding to perform under a new name can be a disconcerting sign of change for the worse. For Raymond Byron and the White Freighter, though, the name change seems entirely necessary. From Castanets’ first album to the 2009 Texas Rose, the Thaw, and the Beasts, Raposa has steadily phased out the “freak” in his freak-folk. His experimentation with noise, crackles, beeps and beats are over. Without any distraction by (or hiding behind) experimentation, Little Death Shaker rests on the precipice of his transition to confident bone-baring.
With the first few listens, the record cycles though pace and style like a country variety show; from the simple, swinging throwaway ditty of ‘Some Of My Friends’ to the drawn out ‘State Line’, a gritty jam that drags its feet through the dust and dirt. His closest musical relative in this regard might be Bright Eyes, who also manages to grasp that tangible sense of drama in the cycle of anguish and release.
You’ll have to dig a little deeper to find the easy celestial cresendos that Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros have built a career upon. Yes, there are some explosive choruses but these are sandwiched between songs of sombre meditation and love lost – the type of truly painful love songs that come without any cathartic relief. It’s for this reason Little Death Shaker won’t be the soundtrack to your next Kodak moment, or for that matter the soundtrack to the next Kodak advert. Instead it projects a more acute sense of virtuous reverence for life and the karmic nature of things – in a way that only a practised country outfit can – and all of this whilst managing to avoid the common pitfall of hollow mimicry. Its originality comes not from novelty but in fresh, solid song-writing. It runs through its emotional gamut with such ease that it would be difficult to highlight the two singles or one ballad often included in a template that even the very un-poppy artists seem to want to follow.
In a sense this is the only obvious criticism: that there aren’t any real singles. With the current trend for uplifting Americana, it’s almost a shame not to have that one big anthem that might cut through the air for the more casual listener. For all the potential raw power on the record, that Black Keys kick-in-the-gut chorus is just one verse too far away. Of course this could be considered a mark of restraint from a man who has all the right gear to pull it off, but with every other country and folk trope accounted for with aplomb – with the atmosphere set so perfectly for a sudden explosion of overdriven guitar- it does seem like a missed trick.
Little Death Shaker is the first notable record of late to avoid the pitfall that so often swallows up artists in this genre. A pitfall which, up to now Raposa had avoided through experimentation and diversions: painting an honest picture of the deep south and necessitating slide-guitar, banjo and harmonica without even the slightest sense of pastiche.