The more things change, the more they stay the same for Dean Wells. The main—and usually only—guy behind the Capstan Shafts is a prolific writer of songs so short they almost come off as sketches. Wells recorded a number of CD-Rs on his own before signing to Rainbow Quartz, and his first two albums followed the same lo-fi aesthetic. But with Revelation Skirts, Wells has made a few changes. For one, the fidelity isn’t exactly crystalline, but it is much improved. He has also, for the first time, employed another musician on these songs. On this record, Wells sticks to guitar and vocals, leaving the rest of the instrumentation to Matt Lemay, who also produced the record.
The results are both surprising and not. Revelation Skirts is hardly a great turn away from what Wells has always excelled at, which is to say quick bursts of eccentric, ultra-hooky power-pop. But this is Wells most cohesive, well-built set to date. It’s not expansive—Wells doesn’t have that word in his musical vocabulary—but the songs are just a touch more fleshed out than in the past. The album still clocks in at a lean half-hour with 14 songs. But consider this: 2008’s Fixation Protocols covers the same time with 22 songs, and 2007’s Environ Maiden is only a few minutes longer but contains a whopping 29 songs. So while the album remains terse, the songs themselves get a little more attention and room to develop.
This new focus yields a wildly infectious yet still raucous album. Wells has always had a knack for a hook, and in the past they’ve been so tight, he never felt the need to wear them out. Here, though, with the help of Lemay, he gives his sound some depth and serious rock muscle. “Fairweather Triumphalist”, for example, starts with the kind of thin guitar chords we’d expect, but once the chorus hits, the guitars multiply and amp up into overdrive. A hook slices through the verses and Lemay’s drumming drives the whole ramshackle thing forward.
Wells also switches up his delivery to great effect here. From the overcast hum in his voice on the mostly acoustic “Little Burst of Sunshine” to the nearly awkward, clustered phrasing of “Class War Tease”, Wells digs into a subtle, if occasionally deluded pleasure in all of these songs. There is disappointment—“You don’t like me that way,” he laments on “Let Your Head Wrong”—but he’s dealing in smaller victories here, the littler happinesses that orbit that loss. “I’m happy here just listening to your voice on the glistening grass,” he remembers in the same song, clinging more to that memory than the bad end it led to.
So while he goes through various iterations of love—usually an unrequited kind, or the wrong kind—Wells still sounds triumphant at every turn, ready to take this blow and ready himself for the next. These more nuanced, intricate emotions come directly out of more fully realized songs. Wells doesn’t get carried away here—he hovers at two minutes here, where he’d be gone in a minute and change before—but the extra verse or chorus he affords himself here lets us truly see all his talents as a varied songwriter. “From Revelation Skirts” is a solid acoustic break from the punky power-pop of the rest of the record, and leads us into album standout “Quiet Wars”. Wells has always had hooks, but they’re rarely as arena-sized and triumphant as the chorus here. His voice belts it out here, breaking from the humble melodies we’re used with a surprising strength. The song even starts us off with a quick snippet of the past, just Wells and his guitar shrouded in faint tape hiss until the song kicks in.
It’s maybe a bit of a smirking nod, but it’s also a declaration. Wells could have kept doing what he was doing, and Revelation Skirts could have been something very solid. Instead, he’s pressed forward, challenged himself, and the Capstan Shafts sound for all the world like a full rock band. Not only that, they have hit us with the most energetic batch of power-pop this year. In Wells’ brief past, it’s been hard to think of the Capstan Shafts without thinking of Guided by Voices—I mean, watch the video below and tell me Wells doesn’t stand like Bob Pollard—but Wells steps out of any shadow he was in with this record. It is indeed a revelation, where one of our finest songwriters builds his strengths and shines them up just enough to concentrate an already potent dose of pop music. At a time when all the kids are going back to hiding behind tape hiss, one of the lo-fi OG’s used the studio to get louder and, amazingly, a whole lot better.