erasing clouds

Homemade Revolution: The Capstan Shafts

by dave heaton

Maybe revolution is too strong a word for music, but I certainly felt like I was under siege when I looked through my stack of unlistened-to CDs and realized that three of them were from The Capstan Shafts. All three are 6- or 7-song EPS, with very homemade looking covers; one is all white with the band and album name written on it with black marker, another is tan with the band name written in a small circle in the center, and the third is all black, with no writing on it at all. The three have mysterious names - Ample Tribes for Sullen King Pounder, Her Chapbook Called "Tiny Gray Radio" and HopeGetsWheels - and surreal, kind of hilarious song titles like "Hibiscus Wildzoo part 2," "Alien Like Paraguay" and "Upstairs With 'The Anti-Christ'." The first day I actually listened to the CDs I fell instantly in love with the fuzzy pop-rock underneath the arts-and-crafts covers. The songs have the same mysterious quality as the titles and covers, but they're also filled with heart and fantastic melodies. So that same day that I spent all afternoon listening to three Capstan Shafts CDs, I came home from work and guess what was in the mail? Yep, a Capstan Shafts Cd called Seal Cull Rebellion, this time with circles drawn on the white cover in black marker.

These Capstan Shafts CDs are the kind of inscrutable recordings that taunt you to figure them out. The way they've appeared in my mailbox nearly every week lately, and how little information came with them, lead me to the Internet, of course, to search for the facts. The best I've determined is that The Capstan Shafts are a one-man-band from Vermont, also known as Dean Wells (and, on the recent Kittridge Homemade Hits, v. 1 compilation, by the name Vergel Tears). I also came across the names of two other Capstan Shafts CDs - an EP called Great Reset Button of Life which I'm assuming is LCM001 (the CDs I have are LCM002, 003, 004 and 005), and a full-length CD from Asaurus Records (the Michigan label whose motto is "all of our records are handmade") called Chick Cigarettes. That full-length is available to order from Asaurus, so order it I did.

LMC stands for Ladder the Christmas Monkey, by the way - an appropriate puzzle of a name. One question that was answered through my googling is the band name. A capstan shaft is apparently some mechanical part of a tape recorder, making The Capstan Shafts an appropriate name for a group whose music is obviously recorded at home, using bare-bones techniques. Ample Tribes for Sullen King Pounder's opening track "Posters for Cats Dissapeared" (sic) has all the sonic marks that characterize recordings that people refer to as "lo-fi" (sometimes derisively, sometimes not). There's an overall level of fuzz to the song, plus what people who care about such things would consider a rough mix of the instruments and Wells' voice. Now that they're a big-time rock band, Guided by Voices seem to consider their earlier lo-fi recording techniques as a means to an end, not an aesthetic statement. I don't know what Dean Wells' position is on that, but as a listener I find that fuzz and messiness can be an enticing aesthetic style. The rough sound of The Capstan Shafts amplifies the level of mystery their songs already have, but it also amplifies the emotional impact in certain hard-to-pinpoint ways. I'm not going to say that these songs need such a rough presentation to be successful - truthfully, the reason I'm falling for The Capstan Shafts' music is the songs themselves - but to me it adds something. The homemade quality of the recording adds an extra question mark while stripping things closer to the heart.

Ample Tribes for Sullen King Pounder's second track, "Dukes of the Ugly Sound," is the perfect example of how sublimely catchy the Capstan Shafts' songs can be. It's an openhearted love song that feels both circuitous and straightforward - it's hard to know what he's singing about, exactly, or who/what his affections are directed toward, but the heartstrings-tugging feeling of the song could just about bring you to tears in a minute and sixteen seconds, even though when you really analyze the lyrics you're thoroughly confused. The same romantic quality tinges the 1-minute song that follows, though the lyrics quickly identify it as a joke, though not before echoing the bittersweet tone of the music: "I changed my dream/old one got too hard/now I'm content to be a home-movie porn star."

Her Chapbook Called "Tiny Gray Radio" continues much in the same vein as Ample Tribes... but that's in no way a bad thing, as you'll realize right from the first track "Upstairs With the 'Anti-Christ'," a quick blast of fuzz-rock with a perfect pop hook, and the second, the short twisted country ballad called "...", and the third, and the fourth, and so on. Seal Cull Rebellion is perhaps the most "accessible" of these EPs. The noise is stripped away to highlight the melodies, the lyrics are less obtuse, and the melodies are infectious as melodies can be. This is the EP to win over your pop-loving friends with; though every one of these releases is tuneful beyond belief, here the melodies are foregrounded in the mix and Wells sings each song to the hilt, heightening the emotional impact of each chorus and verse. The tone of the CD is melancholy but hopeful - the songs roll along in a joyous way even as Wells is singing about joy as something people need to force upon themselves, as he does on "Drags of Grind: "cry yourself to sleep/dream yourself awake/drink yourself back to sleep and/love yourself enough to make it OK." Her Chapbook Called "Tiny Gray Radio" opens up with a song that has the stripped-down catchiness of the Seal Cull Rebellion songs, yet in the background swirls a ghostly noise. Overall this EP has the same qualities that make Seal Cull such a joy, plus an extra dose of rock power and mystery, as on the beautiful "Little Burst of Sunshine", which feels like a romance, detective novel and greeting card at once, and has an exuberant classic-rock build-up that helps give the song an optimistic feeling, or "Shimmyshake on Monster Island," a rocker with a roving bass guitar and a chorus of kazoos.

The overall tone of Capstan Shafts songs is intimate and heartbaring, but the lyrics entwine honest expressions of emotion (of regret, adoration, sadness, confusion) with surrealist imagery and humor. All of these qualities are entwined so thoroughly that I'm never sure if I'm reading the song correctly. In other words, my impression of a song is likely to change when I catch a word I hadn't heard before, or sense a tone in a different way. I half-feel like this review is unwriting itself as I write it, like my descriptions of the songs will be irrelevant by the time these words are read. I feel that way because there's something perfectly puzzling about the Capstan Shafts - all of these songs are hard to get a complete handle on, even as they immediately yield so many pleasures. I love that about them - it's what I loved about Bee Thousand-era Guided by Voices, a band that I've mentioned twice now in this article and will certainly be mentioned often when the Capstan Shafts are written about, though perhaps they shouldn't be. You see, The Capstan Shafts' songs are brief, they're recorded at home, they sometimes have cryptic lyrics, and Wells is possibly quite prolific. These are all surface-level things, however, and musically the touchpoints for The Capstan Shafts are too different to make that comparison hold too long. Their songs take in classic rock n' roll guitar riffs, but they don't sound like they're reaching out for a stadium full of fans. They're intimate and playful, and touch gently on ragtime jazz, lonesome country ballads, Chuck Berry, Jimi Hendrix, the blues, and much more (all in a weird sense, though: they never sound exactly like these styles, but they remind me of them) . I'd be surprised if I found out that Wells had never heard GBV before, or didn't like them, yet the warped world of the Capstan Shafts is too varied in tone and style to pin it on one influence, or a handful of influences even.

I've written several paragraphs on the Capstan Shafts now without getting to their one full-length album, Chick Cigarettes, which by its length should by most standards be the main topic of this essay. At 20 tracks it's hard to get a grasp on it in only a couple of days, which is how long it's been in my possession, but so far it is a remarkable beast, as pleasurable in all regards as any of the EPs described above. Each of the EPs feels flooded with ideas and feelings, so Chick Cigarettes feels like an absolute epic even though its total running time is only 30 minutes. The songs bear titles like "Good Judge of Witch Flesh," "My Beautiful Days," and "Too Much Shit (and Not Enough Ass)," and the personalities of the songs match their titles. In other words Chick Cigarettes is at once a diary entry and a drug trip - it's wicked and weird but also filled with the pain and joy of everyday life. Wells sings about wanting someone to hold him and about saving a spider from the bathtub drain with the same seriousness and conviction. "I'm ready to commit right now/but commit what and how?" he cleverly, passionately sings at another point. Chick Cigarettes contains truckloads of emotion and confusion, and they're a great combination. Throw in amazing melodies - every one of The Capstan Shafts' releases contains at least one moment where you're hearing what you think might be the best melody you've ever heard - and you have music worth obsessing over. I feel like it'd take a doctoral dissertation to unravel everything that's going on in a Capstan Shafts song...but at the same time I feel like this is music in its simplest state, one person successfully using songs to pass on his feelings and thoughts to others.

{The Capstan Shafts}

Issue 28, November 2004

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