Capillary Action Capsized

[Natural Selection; 2011]

Styles: experimental rock
Others: Captain Beefheart, Skeletons, U.S. Maple

Impetuously, but fitfully, charging out of the speakers like an impatient interviewee trying to get their words in against an implied Bill O’Reilly, Capillary Action’s Capsized is an odd sort of juggernaut. Its intro sets the stage appropriately for what is, even for the most adventurous fans, a rocky ride. As an album, it’s an exercise in dynamism and musical trickery from beginning to end. One can easily imagine bandleader (and sole constant member) Jonathan Pfeffer constructing these compositions (I’m purposefully avoiding calling them “songs”) as bizarre endurance tests or initiation rituals for his latest batch of collaborators. But what does that sound like? Well, to my ears, the most obvious touchstone is Beefheart and, more specifically, Trout Mask Replica. This comparison is itself a testament to the artistic merits of the venture, but putting it in relation to such lofty company has a way exposing some potential weaknesses.

To be sure, Pfeffer (a former TMT contributor) and company are experts in musicianship to even be able to execute these tracks. There’s a lot of pleasure to be had in thinking about how they might be counting various parts or cuing one another, as nothing here is intuitive. However, this means that Capsized is more an intellectual exercise than an emotional one. When it comes to how the album makes me feel, I think the best description is “detached.” Parts stop and start with little interest in coherency or consonance. With few exceptions, things are more driven by spasmodic rhythmic shifts than any anticipatable sense of tonality. Even a track like “Brackish Love,” which begins its life as a mannered piece for string quartet, eventually succumbs to the entropy of the album, breaking into fluctuating, percussive bursts in its second half. The most consistent aspect of the album is Pfeffer’s voice, which, as an instrument, is capable but rarely works to provide melodic accompaniment. Instead, it seems to hover and flutter about with little interest in being a point of human connection.

It’s a challenge to a listener as much as to the band (if not more so), and I’m all for being challenged. Of course, I want some tangible rewards for my efforts, and in the course of listening to Capsized repeatedly, the potential for such reward seems to shrink away rather than increase. This is where the Trout Mask comparison works against it. Such disjointed, initially unnatural music can still grow on me if there are elements there to pull me in. In Beefheart’s case, there’s the skeletal blues base that becomes clearer after multiple listens and, perhaps more importantly, the place of prominence given to his incomparable vocal delivery and Dadaist wordplay. While Pfeffer’s lyrics are thoughtful and often cryptic, there’s no accessible whimsy or even dark humor to help counterbalance the arduousness of the music, and his voice seems more ably equipped for standard pop singing (not intended as a dig — I’d be happy to hear him sing some new wave, synth-pop, etc.) than for developing a cult of strangeness about it.

But perhaps Capillary Action are the real winners here anyway. Clearly their intent isn’t to conventionally please their audience as much as to puzzle them, to mess with their heads. Whether or not I find the album gratifying enough to put on at my next house party, at least the unsettling nature of Capsized has forced me to ponder my relationship with it.

Links: Capillary Action - Natural Selection

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