Equal parts samba school density and Beefheartian primitivism; pure pop bliss and chamber ensemble precision, Capillary Action are an American musical ensemble that cannibalize a wide variety of sources to synthesize a cubist, confrontational take on classic pop forms.
Led by composer/singer/guitarist Jonathan Pfeffer, Capillary Action’s music is typified by its frenetic pace, dense harmonies, broad dynamics, elastic rhythmic interplay, and confessional tone. Far from pastiche or collage, central to Pfeffer’s modus operandi is the challenge of eliminating the distinctions between chaos and clarity, art and pop, consonance and dissonance to communicate complex, ambiguous, and extremely personal experiences through song.
Since 2005, Capillary Action has shared stages far and wide alongside Beirut, Deerhoof, Dirty Projectors, Rhys Chatham, Shudder to Think, Les Claypool, Dengue Fever, and Lightning Bolt; and has made appearances at international festivals including Willisau Jazz (Switzerland), Primavera Sound (Spain), Incubate (Netherlands), Budějovický Majales (Czech Republic), Poprevo (Denmark), LOLA (Canada), and British Wildlife (England).
Capillary Action is the musical vehicle for singer/composer/guitarist and Philadelphia native Jonathan Pfeffer, a first-generation American born in 1986 to an Argentine translator and an Israeli cameraman. Equally inspired by a tumultuous family life and the dying breaths of the 90s alternative rock boom, Jon began writing songs at the age of 11 unhindered by not actually knowing how to play an instrument. The expected weirdness of a long and agonizing puberty spent in the Philadelphia public school system supplied fodder for future songs, but basement shows and South Street’s used record shops provided the other half of the equation.
In 2004, Jon made the move to Oberlin College in Ohio where his diverse musical and personal pursuits collided to give messy birth to Capillary Action. Jon’s artistic ambition—equal parts eager amateur’s spirit and analyst’s perception—saw him cultivate an austere work ethic as he wrote and toured at a relentless pace. Jon came upon a unique approach that married the propulsive energy of Capillary Action’s early shows (physical, often violent) to lush orchestration and a hefty philosophical bent (no doubt tainted by his conceptual art studies).
Capillary Action’s debut full-length So Embarrassing arrived in 2008 and its exploration of deeply personal subject matter set to a brutal-prog take on orchestral pop was met with wide critical acclaim (“Imagine Prokofiev re-arranging the Red Krayola,” raved The Wire). In support of the release, Capillary Action undertook an unprecedented touring schedule, sharing stages far and wide alongside Beirut, Dirty Projectors, Rhys Chatham, Shudder to Think, and Les Claypool, while collecting glowing accolades along the way.
In March 2011 Capillary Action’s long-awaited sophomore album Capsized will be released on the group’s own Natural Selection imprint. Capillary Action still traffic in the overwhelming moments that have become its bread and butter—the sugar rush of an unexpected timbre, the exhilaration of a heart-stopping chord change, the brain freeze of a disassembled rhythm, the toxic shock of the lyric that plunges deeper into the psyche than one should safely tread—but this second time around, the attack is more nuanced, the ‘border crossing’ more seamless, and the songs exponentially sophisticated.
Recorded in the wilds of Minocqua, Wisconsin with engineer Robert Cheek (Deftones, RX Bandits, Tera Melos), the sound of Capsized is dominated by a select few timbres: nylon-string guitar, trumpet, accordion, upright bass, percussion, and five voices. The instrumentation serves to extract spellbinding Escher-esque details from an otherwise spartan canvas. It’s a rapacious beast of an album, absorbing Ives and Bartók, Brazilian work songs and Bulgarian choral music, UK grime and Philly soul. And yet you’ll hear none of the tripping recklessness that all those various reference points might imply. It’s exquisitely mapped and expertly performed, and the jagged edges come from Jon’s daring, dense harmonies, not any slapdash genre-hopping.
The title, in typical Capillary Action fashion, puts a self-deprecating spin on a particularly abject period of the author’s life while paying not-so-subtle homage to the BP oil spill and the current global economic decline. On Capsized, Jon turns his keen powers of observation outward as he critiques the world around him while continuing to confront the most uncomfortable aspects of his life with unflinching resolve: songs about doubt, love loss, car crashes, isolation, and wanderlust sit alongside ruminations on the complexities of globalization, consumer psychology, widespread apathy, and finding one’s place in the universe.
Capillary Action still demands as much from the listener as it gives back but the new all-acoustic ensemble offers up the rare point of entry for those traditionally scared off by the band’s everything-at-once approach. The full-band vocal harmonies, polyrhythmic percussion maelstroms, and innovative arrangements find Capillary Action’s flailing aggression intact but also reflect the first tentative steps toward something resembling…maturity. Those listeners looking for a trip down a road less traveled couldn’t ask for one with more thrilling stops along the way. Capsized is another fearless statement from an American original.
Capillary Action’s songs have the pacing of a brawl, with quiet moments to catch your breath followed by furious passages of pounding rhythm and dissonant swells. [But] they’re all subordinated to songs with Pfeffer’s even, baritone vocals adding a strong melodic center for the listener.
Musical fragments are layered one upon another, resulting as often in dense polyrhythm as they do in deliciously intertwined melodic lines.
The Onion AV Club
Shake Capillary Action before opening; you never know what might come out.
Capillary Action’s music is like a perplexing film that you have to (and want to) watch more than once.
Tiny Mix Tapes
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.
Capillary Action are not for the faint of heart. Capsized is their sophomore album, but there’s nothing sophomoric about it. Starting off with a Bartok-inspired trumpet melody, the Action get serious groove with a frenetic Brazilian forró shuffle. Jonathan Pfeffer’s singing is better than on the first record; he’s simply more confident singing in an entirely full-throated manner to convey the paranoia, anger, absurdism and hope of the politically charged lyrics. Capillary Action have upped their game creating imaginative polyrhythms, which shift like tectonic plates throughout the course of a three-minute song. And when a groove locks in (which happens at least twice in different ways in a song), it’s mesmerizing.
Ferociously, hallucinatorily detailed, truly avant pop. Their luscious, sleek sound, part close harmony barber shop, part samba band…is structured around difficult, discombobulating melodies that constantly derail your train of thought and twist your ears. The tension of Bernard Herrman’s Psycho and Taxi Driver orchestrations with Pfeffer’s vocals doing 12-tone acrobatics -there can’t be too many other bands headed by Schoenberg-influenced club singers out there. There’s nobody quite like them.
Drowned in Sound
Capillary Action is a rubber ball, bouncing about four walls and a stained-glass roof, each impact reshaping it into some wonderfully different object. It’s the “Back To The Future” series condensed into a 30-minute soap opera, Darwin’s most intellectual theories spray-painted across a Greyhound bus.
This wasn’t Boingo spazz, but it was far too fun to be prog, and the line-up of accordion and trombone gave me the odd sensation that I was watching a post-ska Eighties band break it down in The Young Ones’ living room. Or maybe it was Elvis Costello meets the Minutemen. All I know is that one of their songs literally sounded like “Chrome Plated Megaphone of Destiny” without any of the tape manipulation.
[Capsized is] an album perfectly demonstrating the chaos, pleasure, confusion, and amazement inherent in life.
Capsized is an album filled with corners, turning you a sharp ninety degrees in one direction before sloping back a quick one-fifty and spitting you out in another direction. That being the case, preliminary listens can be a bit disorienting. It’s an adventure listen, there’s no doubt about that. This is what Capillary Action has a mind for: Spinning you so precisely as to unravel your brain tissue. So press past disorientation. This is an album that rewards every repeat listen bountifully. Upside-down as often as it is right-side-up, Capsized is another agitated notch of maniacal, rib-loosening pop music from the constantly inventive Capillary Action.
Both Elvises in a serious Burt Bachawreck with the Mothers of Invention. But even as this all-acoustic quintet pull their best white-rabbit impression, darting behind any available obstruction, it’s clear they want you to follow them — and Jonathan Pfeffer makes sure his soaring, seizing, stammering, polymath out-bursts are worth following.