The Capstan Shafts - "Hip to the Sweet Blue World Again" (Environ Maiden)
Dean Wells, the reclusive songwriter known as the Capstan Shafts, spends his days in northern Vermont, 4-track running, headphones on, laying down sweet shards of fuzzy melody and abruptly revelatory turns of imagery. From this Northeast Kingdom stronghold, he has been sending out homemade cassettes and CD-Rs since 1999. By one count, his discography now extends to 10 EPs and seven full-lengths, each packed to the gills with one and two minute songs, the music on all of them lo-fi to the point of primitivism, the parts overdubbed in a cacophonous parfait, as Wells plays guitar, drums, bass and keyboards. Up to this year, he had never played live and never assembled a band. (He finally performed at CMJ.) The whole shebang would be sort of a freak show…except that the music is so good. Environ Maiden, which collects songs from three self-released EPs from 2007 alone, is the aughties answer to Bee Thousand. It's a pure blast of eccentric creativity and discontinuous inspiration, a rocket launch of songwriting ideas that trails clouds of distortion in its wake.
The disc contains a daunting 29 tracks, yet it runs like a roller coaster, over before you've had time to object to the dips and curves. These cuts bear cracked and whimsical titles like "Right on the Malthus" and "Drop Dead Innocuous." The shortest, "The Origin of Rain" jangles and slashes through a mere 35 seconds, yet seems, in its way, to be a fully-formed and wistfully evocative song. The epic "My Family Is Welsh, I'm Just Tired" is the only cut on the disc to crack the two-minute barrier. It rides a ragged Neil Young-ish guitar line through its crooked, self-lacerating lyrics and cymbal pounding rhythm. Whatever their length, however, the songs have a tossed-off quality, as if the phrases and melodies had just occurred to Wells, and he was only jotting them down before he forgot. And, yet, there are clever verbal turns and indelible hooks embedded, things that might require a great deal of thought to nail down, and are only made to look easy.
Consider, for instance, the 49-second "Hip to the Sweet Blue World," a pure jolt of musical joy and melodic fancy. Garage-rocker guitar licks roughen the edges. Wells' sandpapery tenor scrapes out the melody. There's a hum and hiss of distortion wrapped around the whole enterprise. And yet, when Wells gives his guitar a Townshend ba-da-dum, and the chorus kicks in, there's a never-wrapped-in-plastic freshness to the song, a sweetness filtered by experience, a buoyancy against all odds. "Hip to the sweet blue world" is all Wells says, but it's life and joy and struggle encased in lo-fi optimism.
Environ Maiden includes some verbal cleverness, as when "Right on the Malthus" slips an elliptical reference to the philosopher into its tale of missed romantic connection. Still, this is the kind of album whose strength are almost impossible to describe in prose. The more you think about it, the more you start to see the flaws, the stone age production quality, the ideas that are hardly explored before being tossed aside, the jumps from one song to another… but look away for a minute, and the melodies drift up out of clouds of static, phrases stick in your head, and songs take shape out of what seemed at first only sketches. It's the kind of record you almost shouldn't look at too directly. Glance accordingly, though, and it glints at you like a gemstone in a gravel pile.