We’re at a point in popular-music history where mash-ups and stylistic swerves are so commonplace that they’ve become a form of orthodoxy, just another musical vernacular spoken by spazzy rock bands or sample-happy beatmakers raised on Frank Zappa or the Beastie Boys. Whirlwind jump-cuts don’t mean much by themselves anymore -- there’s gotta be something more if the music’s going to stick past the “far out, man” phase. On So Embarrassing, the second proper album by Philadelphia quartet Capillary Action, there is.
Capillary Action’s instrumental debut, Fragments (2005), felt like potential waiting for fulfillment. Its imperfections were heroically cute; the album documented the mighty ambitions of gawky teenage composer/guitarist Jon Pfeffer, full of promise but still struggling to focus his ideas into something potent. Three straight years of touring, woodshedding and recording have made a world of difference. So Embarrassing is the elaborately screwy, tightly composed record that Fragments tried to be, the work of an A.D.H.D.-addled brain with an excellent psychiatrist and an even better backing band. The album’s strange mesmerism goes way beyond its ever-shifting surface.
Smiles of incredulity arise when the progressive pop groove of “Elevator Fuck” lands on a single death-metal chord and then takes on samba rhythms, strings, a church-organ break and Afro-funk before ending abruptly. Same goes for the bulbous lounge jazz of "Koala" àRock in OppositionàMorbid Angel zig-zagging, as concentrated an epic as you’ll find under ninety seconds. But Capillary Action takes its polymath aesthetic seriously, and Pfeffer understands the need for balance between spazz and structure. Hooks jump out in the strangest places, and successive listens reveal melodic themes that run through songs and, in several cases, between them.
Steering So Embarrassing is Pfeffer’s personable voice, every bit as dynamic as the fitful music that surrounds it. He flits between a warbly baritone croon (similar to that of the Dirty Projectors’ David Longstreth) and unrestrained hardcore screams, depending on whether Capillary Action is in booty-shake or mind-melt mode. Pfeffer’s peculiar, very personal imagery sticks, too. The unnamed addressee of “Gambit” has “A leaking mouth and glazed eyes”; a first-grade Pfeffer reminds a deadbeat dad, “You walked out while I clung to the towel in the first-floor bathroom” in “Father of Mine.” Composition and narrative converge in surreal ways throughout.
With its tricky changes and complex orchestrations, So Embarrassing should feel laborious, and Capillary Action’s greatest feat is that it doesn’t. The musicians that Pfeffer assembled to fill out his vision deserve a lot of the credit for that: Drummer Ricardo Lagomasino and bassist Spencer Russell, especially, navigate the often rudderless rhythmic waters with ridiculous tightness and total elasticity, while the string and horn players do classical class or free jazz cacophony equally well.
It all comes down to the gestalt though, and that’s all Pfeffer. He pruned this album to an essential thirty-two minutes, in which every note (and there are a lot of them) has its purpose and every bizarre genre switch leads somewhere important and ends before wearing out its welcome. Call it “experimental rock” if you must, but So Embarrassing is way past the experimentation stage. Capillary Action knows exactly what it’s doing.