Owen Ashworth wrote Vs. Children with the intention that it would be the final album from Casiotone for the Painfully Alone. Listening with the benefit of hindsight, it’s difficult not to hear the Chicago, IL singer/songwriter beginning to outgrow the moniker. First released by German label Tomlab in 2009, the record completed an evolution beyond the strictly electronic style of the early CFTPA releases, using piano, organ, Mellotron, and acoustic percussion to achieve a newfound richness. Coupled with its increasingly mature lyricism, Vs. Children represented something of an inflection point, a turn away from the often harsh keyboard arrangements of past records towards a more organic form. A sound that Ashworth would develop further as Casiotone metamorphosized into his new project, Advance Base.
The CFTPA discography inspired a generation of songwriters, and cult-hit Etiquette is now established as a prominent jewel in the crown of 00s bedroom pop. But Vs. Children has its own legacy. Artists continue to demonstrate its impact and influence, be it through Tomberlin’s cover of ‘Natural Light’ or the highest of praise from indie legend Stephen Merritt: “The lyrics are wonderful and I actually like his voice.” Nearly twelve years after the initial release, Ashworth has decided to reissue Vs. Children on his own Orindal Records in its original form—maintaining its legacy with a vinyl edition available outside of eBay or Discogs.
That the album occupies a liminal space in Ashworth’s oeuvre is fitting, because its characters find themselves in a similarly transitory place. The youthful melancholy of previous Casiotone releases matures into something different. Situations change, become more desperate, and the songs see the emergence of the subdued, wistful sadness that would come to define Advance Base. The protagonists of Vs. Children are no longer young but not ready for adulthood. Haunted by the past and terrified of the future, all the while yearning for the moment when their fears are realised and the tension released. The titular figure of “Tom Justice,” a track based on a real-life bank robber (and former co-worker of Ashworth’s), is smiling when the feds finally capture him. ‘Was it a kind of relief,” Ashworth wonders, ‘to pay for your sin?’
Alongside criminality, parenthood emerges as the second recurring motif, Ashworth’s uniquely compassionate writing pairing these unlikely thematic bedfellows into a nuanced, sympathetic whole. The duality between the felonious and the domestic—criminals who would be parents or parents who would be criminals—casts the double life as a kind of escape plot, a final reach for freedom from becoming who you are destined to be. An apprehended bank robber can never be anything else. And, to quote “Killers,” you’re a parent ‘til you’re dead. Vs. Children sees no option but to seize the giddy present. The past in the rear-view, the future an ambiguous, undecided space. On the run, you are neither good nor bad, son nor dad. Not special or normal, innocent or evil. No verdict has been reached, you can be anything. The two biggest judges in life are your children and the law, but they have to catch you first.
— Jon Doyle