There were few band breakups in the modern music scene that jerked more tears than that of Northstar. When the Pollyanna-crafting artists hung it up in 2005, there was a collective sense of shock, disbelief, and overarching sadness left to be swallowed by the band’s many fans. Luckily enough, for Nick Torres and Tyler Odom, the breakup of Northstar was just the dissolution of a band they felt was no longer making a relevant style of music. The scene ended up losing the moniker as well as the group’s style of sardonic, thoughtful rock, but the gifts of Torres and Odom have lingered to give birth to Cassino, the duo’s new brainchild, which arrives with the most satisfying of results.
If you have been pleasantly isolated for the last two years and know not what to expect from Cassino’s sound, then it would be succinct to imagine them as a folkier, mellower, acoustic Northstar with alt-country influences. In other words, their debut, Sounds of Salvation, sounds like what you might get if you extracted Northstar’s “Two Zero Two” and extrapolated and varied it into an entire record’s worth of material. Sure, this is a gross simplification, but if you have yet to test the waters, this is the easiest way to get your toes wet.
For those that have been following the Cassino train since it first left the station two years ago, you have been exposed to the four demos the band has been teasing us with until this very day. And depending on your viewpoint, you will be either relieved or dismayed to see them reappear on Sounds of Salvation. Personally, I rested somewhere in the middle, anxious to hear how they songs would turn out under the proverbial album treatment, but still somewhat disappointed to be getting that much less new material. Either way, it is what it is, so it is worth noting that yes, all four prior tracks appear here, but they do so in an extremely fitting way that integrates tightly with the album’s vision. “American Low,” “Gin War,” and “Platano” are all relatively unchanged, but have simply been dressed up in quite the presentable package for their proper places on Sounds. From the warbling electric accents of “Low” to the intro of the revamped “Platano,” whose acoustic guitar notes almost resemble harpsichord-like tones, the attention to detail is altogether welcome, and refreshes the older songs just enough.
On the other end of the spectrum then, we have “New Jerusalem” – a track that went from being a demo recorded in a bathroom to being fully fleshed out in a grandiose arrangement replete with plenty of guitars, drums, and even horns(!) to make a complete 180. The end result will likely polarize fans, as some will applaud the revision. Some such as myself, though, will find the song to now feel cluttered and overwrought, losing a lot of the sparse charm it one had. Regardless, it and the rest of the demos prove once again the strength of their construction, as tunes almost two years old come across feeling vibrant and far from stale. They beg for repeat plays just like the record’s spring chickens, which is a feat in and of itself. So when you look at the tracklist and see some familiar faces – fret not, as you are still getting more than your money’s worth.
When Sounds of Salvation begins its sweep, the listener is treated to the crisp, yet delicate acoustic guitars of “Governor,” where Nick’s fragile, honest vocal delivery provides an almost irrefutable substantiation for the boys’ new sound. Subtle touches again, like the backing chorus of sighing vocals give the track an understated gleam that carries over across the album, revealing the tender care that went into crafting this work. From there, cuts like “The Old Year” seamlessly blend bluegrass-style riffs and twinkling piano yarns as ingredients in Cassino’s eclectic stew, while “Tin Man’s Throne” scales that grandeur back to a minimalist frame, while the troubadours interweave their pair of strolling acoustics under Torres’s breathy vocals. Moving on, the work continues its ebb and flow variation, as the vivid imagery of “Dust Went Flying” makes for a beautiful segue that manages to avoid the trap of pointlessness that so many instrumental tracks so carelessly tumble into. Cassino proves their security with the addition of the piano to their repertoire late in the game, with both “Lolita” and “Ice Factory” using the ebony and ivory for majestic contrasts to their more placid elements.
When Sounds of Salvation has played its last note, one can’t help but proclaim the record a complete triumph. For a band that put this record together entirely on its own, the finished work is so solid, that the DIY aspect is borderline unfathomable. At its core, Cassino just has an extremely engaging sound to call their own. Nick’s relaxed, laid-back flow adds to the aura of enigmatic world-weariness heard throughout the disc. Truth be told, the man is not a great vocalist in the classical sense, but he effectively uses his voice to convey sentiments between the lines, relaying a charming sense of melancholy beneath every word. Instrumentally, the guitar work is consistently well-planned, as every element has its place on the record, which provides a temperate level of music that so deftly avoids the realm of excess. On the whole, the LP has a surprising amount of distinction between songs, which is far from a trivial task for a folk album to pull off in stride. And last, but not least, Nick’s profound, poetic lyrics are an emotive amalgamation of the abstract and narrative, and serve as a lesson to all the bands out there riding disposable writing to success. His literary gymnastics are to be envied, for when you can shoot things like this from the hip, your prose is indeed a loaded weapon:
She leaps higher than the scale And then falls like iron and screaming air Right down in front of me I don’t know how it came to this I am so scarred up with cigarettes Cigarettes and leaks But I know I’ll always stay possessed Like a preacher to a crucifix If you drive your nails into me We’re sitting on the floor in a pile Trading our arms for some wings of harm I am god damned Been blown from the hinge And I can now barely stand
All in all, Cassino’s Sounds of Salvation is an awesome display of what a band can do under their own artistic umbrella, and is truly one of the most exciting and breathtaking releases in music this year. Expect goosebumps.