I never thought I'd say this, but thank god Northstar broke up. Conceded: I love Northstar. Pollyanna is on regular rotation in my stereo, and will be for a long time. But if Northstar continued on, we wouldn't have ever had Cassino.
The two fundamentals of Northstar, Nick Torres and Tyler Odom, pair their musical talents again in Cassino, an endeavor with folk roots and acoustic tendencies. Though there have been some notable transitions to the "unplugged" genre, Torres & Co. remain extremely distinct from any easy comparisons, sporting Torres's lazy vocal delivery and top-notch writing, as well as Odom's guitar work, which is showcased more in Cassino than it ever could have been in Northstar. After chomping on a few demos for what seemed like years (maybe it was?), Cassino finally put out their self-released debut, Sounds of Salvation, and in doing so made one of those rare records that makes a listener tremble.
Eleven tracks in all, SoS begins with "Governor," a toe-tapper with Torres urging listeners, "…climb what you can before it's gone." It only takes 30 seconds of "Governor" to realize the truth and sincerity this record has in all its aspects. Too often it's noticeable that an album is forced, which can be blamed on the business models of most labels. Every bar of SoS is plucked with ease, tapped with precision, and sung with reverence, and those (unfortunately) aren't adjectives that commonly appear in an album review of any genre.
Torres returns to themes of exhaustion and burden throughout the album, and though there are points of melody and positive perfection, Torres's lyrical content is demanding to be read. These 11 songs are not mindless chatter over cookie-cutter riffs, and they definitely shouldn't be "backgrounded" at a party. Showing the exhaustion and burden, Torres sing in "Platano," "I'll try my best, I'll make it fit / But the more it grinds the worse it gets / I watch it shake my hold of it / But the more it runs the more tired I get." And in "American Low," one of the gems of the album: "The hardest thing next to diamond rings / Is the coats we have to wear just to make ends meet / I got this year and 50 more to beat / It's enough to make you give up."
Every song is memorable, but a few others of note are "Tin Man's Throne," "The Gin War" (which has some well-placed horns) and "The Old Year," as the line "I can feel you like the wind" will make you sing along every time. But the standout of the album, and the perfect closer, is "Ice Factory." The first time I heard this song I got goosebumps. Then I put it on repeat 12 more times, and I still had goosebumps. Musically, there's not a whole lot going on, and that structural simplicity may lend itself to what makes it so great. The piano melody is like a lullaby, and the vocals just impress; they impress you as they do throughout the entire album, but they also impress upon you some resilience, some hope, some "it's not so bad after all" sentiment. Maybe my perception doesn't follow the lyrics; I'm still trying to figure some of them out. But "Ice Factory" is flawless.
Speaking of flaws, I found myself hard-pressed to find any. "Dust Went Flying" is an instrumental track, and although I'm not a huge fan of instrumentals, it just adds to the merit of the album as a whole. Other than that, I'd definitely recommend being in a slower mood before giving this an honest spin. If you just finished thrashing to AWS or D4, the transition may be rough.
Don't be deterred by the fact that this isn't in stores -- you can buy it direct from the band, or from iTunes. Overall, this album is one to be reckoned with both musically and lyrically, and places itself in the top 20 albums in my collection. And yes, I owned more than 19 albums before I bought this. This is the first effort though, and while it is undoubtedly strong, we'll see where Cassino goes from here. Hopefully, it's up.