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Neither An Orange Nor A Lemon, Clem Castro Is In A Class All His Own

PULP Issue No. 92 (Dec 2008-Jan 2009)
by Jason Caballa

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Illustration by Conrad Javier

One of the many ways to tell if I like a local band is if I actually wished I were in it. Over the years I’ve said that about a lot of bands that don’t necessarily sound alike, from Ciudad to Monsterbot to the Purplechickens to Taken By Cars. More often than not I would catch the band live, appreciate their songs and overall sound, and make that particular kind of judgment. But unlike Janet Weiss, who saw Sleater-Kinney live before becoming the drummer of the acclaimed all-female punk trio and decided she wanted to join the band because she knew she can make them sound better, I wouldn’t dare tinker with a band’s sonic formula because I usually like the way they sound off the bat.

Such is not exactly the case for The Camerawalls, singer-guitarist-songwriter Clementine Castro’s post-Orange & Lemons outfit, because I really admit that at the time of this writing, I have not seen the band perform live since the release of their debut album, Pocket Guide To The Otherworld. I have seen them more than a few times, though, and while I have long been a fan of Castro’s songwriting, the stripped-down trio of Castro on vocals and acoustic guitar, Law Santiago on bass, and Ian Sarabia on drums couldn’t quite do it for me initially, having greatly admired the lush orchestration of O&L’s  last  album, Moonlane Gardens, and most of all, Castro’s melodic, Johnny Marr-esque guitar playing, which he has all but completely shed with his current three-piece lineup.  I could tell that his new band’s songs had potential, though, especially “Lord Of The Flies,” which the singer-guitarist used to introduce with a scathing indictment of certain people he used to work with. But that’s none of our business.

As expected – and thankfully – Castro’s flair for arrangement and production surfaces on Pocket Guide To The Otherworld, as he embellishes every song with flourishes of banduria and octavina, as well as clean, subtly modulated electric guitar lines to good effect. “Markers Of Beautiful Memories” opens the album with Sarabia’s sparse beats and beautifully tremolo-ed guitar notes, until Castro enters with a familiar voice O&L fans have missed hearing on disc since the previous year. The song even features a nicely plucked acoustic guitar solo during its final seconds, further reinforcing my fandom for the guy’s innate but understated skill with the instrument. Pocket Guide’s first single, “Clinically Dead For 16 Hours,” stands out immediately with its, um, immediate catchiness, but I’m guessing the song probably suffers a bit live without a fourth pair of hands to do its lovely banduria leads. The aforementioned “Lord Of The Flies” swings with an Oasis-like (or mid-period Smiths, if you prefer) swagger. It’s The Camerawalls most rocking number, though in the band’s own terms. Still I could imagine it would sound good just as good with fuzzy electric guitars, though Castro adds a pinch of dirt on some tasty blues licks.

Pretty much every track on Pocket Guide To The Otherworld does exactly that – the songs make one imagine how they would sound given the full rock band treatment. But that’s not the point. Obviously, songcraft is being highlighted here, and there is probably no stronger example of Castro’s gift on this record than “I Love You, Natalie,” which is as perfect as guitar driven pop can get. Sure, it can be argued that The Camerawalls’ debut, like much of O&L’s material for that matter, was made to appeal to more Anglophilic ears, give Castro’s (unintentional?) accent and the new wave bounce of tracks like “Changing Horses Midstream” and “Lizards Hiding Under Rocks.” But as straightforward and stripped-down as they are, it’s not difficult for anyone to like these songs, with their tasteful chord changes, subtle hooks, and strong, accessible melodies. And a song like “Canto De Maria Clara” (a Rizal poem set to the band’s music) could not have been rendered any way but as how it appears on the album, given its Hispanic/romantic motif.

Many have said that a good song’s brilliance truly shines through when performed with just the voice and an acoustic instrument, like a guitar or piano. If that is the case, The Camerawalls have proven their potential over the span of ten tracks, with some effective embellishments here and there. Perhaps I should try watching them live again, and maybe I’ll no longer want to join the band. I might screw everything up.

Rating: 4 Apples

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