Capillary Action - Capsized
Why you should probably listen to Capillary Action when you finish doing whatever it is you’re doing right now
Capillary Action seems to be a relatively new project when you read recent reviews or their own biographical info: they just finished touring on their sophomore record. But there are two earlier releases that I’d hate to see disappear altogether from CapAct history. The first, 2004’s “Fragments,” is an electric guitar-driven instrumental record that generally settles into a style not wildly distant from 90s math rock bands like Don Caballero, though I hear some Europrog textures and South American rhythms that give it a unique voice. Looking back, there are some guitar parts whose chordal and rhythmic approach anticipate Dave Longstreth’s mature synthesis of African and Latin guitar work by five years. CapAct maestro Jonathan Pfeffer was around 18 when this was released, and he started his own record label to put it out.
In 2006, CapAct went in a totally different direction with the “Cannibal Impulses” EP, a sample-based electronics/noise piece full of minute-long bursts of intensity. There were crazy videos to accompany the music, but they seem to be gone from the internet. The only sonic similarity between these “lost” CapAct records is pure charisma—Pfeffer clearly devotes himself fully to every sound he touches.
In 2007, Capillary Action was touring on Pfeffer’s newest reinvention, and what seems now to be considered their official debut, “So Embarrassing.” This recording found CapAct functioning as a 12-piece band with horns and strings filling out complex orchestrations that incorporate a wide range of pop, classical, and jazz influences. Pfeffer’s brilliant guitar playing returned, but now in the service of his singing and lyrical prowess. Indeed, the record is very different than the two before it, and to the extent that “So Embarrassing” and “Capsized” are “songs with vocals” records, I can understand counting the pair as the beginning of a project with a specific focus.
I saw two shows on the masochistic multiyear tour for “So Embarrassing,” each featuring a different 3-piece lineup of Pfeffer on vox/gtr with a drummer and keyboardist. Both were incredible shows, among my all-time favorites, though I’d have to lean slightly toward the Sam/Dan configuration I saw in Lincoln in ‘08. I wouldn’t have thought it possible to play such a dense record convincingly as a trio, but they completely nailed it both times, opening with the punishing song “Bloody Nose” with no introduction and mostly playing without addressing the audience.
The band crashed at my house after the Lincoln ‘08 show. I’ve hosted lots of bands and had great conversations with musicians, but Pfeffer and company really impressed me with their boundless musical curiosity. I’ve often thought that the best musicians tend to be those who listen the most (and the most carefully), and it was clear that Pfeffer was building his own musical approach with a very clear vision while taking his participation as a listener within the larger community of music very seriously. And the talk focused on music itself rather than musical equipment or product endorsements or practice regimens, all useful things in their place but not as essential and universal. Very refreshing.
Onto “Capsized:” Capillary Action explores areas broadly related to those of “So Embarrassing,” but with some important evolutionary distinctions. Compositionally, the integration of musical styles through collage and montage treatments continues, with time and tempo shifts everywhere, the energy of rock music, the harmonic richness of jazz, melodic approaches that evoke pre-WWII classical music as often as pop (think Stravinsky, Bartok, Schoenberg, Shostakovich), and a bit of lounge jazz that seems be be a natural component of Pfeffer’s vocal tone and articulation style. This time around, however, significantly more tropicalia seeps into the mix, all of the instruments used are acoustic, including a switch to nylon-string guitars, and the mix sounds much cleaner. Most tracks on “Capsized” are recorded as quintet pieces, leaving more room for the music to breathe (and the arrangements also keep various instruments out of one another’s primary frequency ranges more, reducing the potential for phase cancellation and stressful mixing). The percussion and drum work is also much more prominent and interesting (many kudos to Dan Sutherland for the emotional and thoughtful drumming on this record).
Lyrically, “So Embarrassing” functioned essentially as a suite, depicting uncomfortable moments in Pfeffer’s life. In “Capsized,” personal struggles remain part of the focus (relationship issues, rigors of heavy touring, the band’s van crash), but there are also outward reflections on topics like the meaning of success, consumer culture, and our increasingly apathetic society.
"Collage and montage" doesn’t give enough credit to the brilliance of these arrangements, though. Like many of my favorite bands and artists, Capillary Action is comfortable working with the resources of any discipline that the music demands. On the surface, one can discuss the myriad influences and ways they’re juxtaposed, but the real work in this music happens through integration and interpretation. Most music lends itself to thorough discussion in terms of relatively circumscribed language and syntax, but this music speaks through all languages and dialects. For the philosophically inclined, this approach could be considered a sort of "metamusic" in which various musical styles impress their values and emotional content on one another in a symbolic exchange. I find myself compelled to listen this way, listening for all of the subtle relationships between the styles employed, the kinds of cultural allusions they make alone and juxtaposed, and how those ideas are advanced even further through lyrical concepts and album art choices. But on a more direct level, you can simply enjoy it as a great integration of art and pop music played with passion and respect. And be sure to catch Capillary Action live the next time they’re in your town—they may be incredibly satisfying to the intellect, their live show is every bit as visceral as it is cerebral.