Independent release, 2015
REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 04/10/2015
This one came out of left field, just one of those random discs that arrived unrequested—thanks to a publicist who has proven she knows her audience—and captured my attention from the very first notes.
Even those notes are memorable, as the aptly-named “Number One” kicks off with a false start, drummer Jeremy Harrell counting them in, only to have guitarist-vocalist Nathan Singleton halt after a single bar and start them over. The song’s title and that one little musical hiccup are the only signs of humor on this album, though; it’s a deadly serious affair that opens with this portentous line: “Summer’s here, and the tramps are on the move.”
The Sideshow Tragedy is Singleton and Harrell, a stripped-down duo representing all that remains of a once-larger band configuration. Fortunately, the dusty, naturalistic feel of voice, bluesy baritone guitar and drums is perfect for this music, which is both desolate and full of a raw, angry beauty. From the opening lines you’re locked into a steady, driving groove that propels you headlong into a dark world where “[y]ou can taste the decay.”
Recorded in producer Kenny Siegal’s Old Soul Studios and issued on his Old Soul Records, Capital feels like it represents a sort of statement of purpose for the band going forward. While the scenes and images change, there is a single conceptual thread running through this album—the destruction of not just some vague social compact, but hope itself, as a consequence of the unfettered greed of the rich and powerful. If that sounds like a political screed, it plays out like a particularly memorable night at a poetry slam, with Singleton and Harrell painting the walls with one fierce, cathartic song after another.
The duo formation, it must be said, is no longer the most original; we’ve certainly heard plenty of vocalist/guitarist-and-drummer pairs in the last 15 years, and The Sideshow Tragedy owes an obvious debt to the White Stripes and the Black Keys in terms of the primal thunder that characterizes their sound. But they make the form their own, Harrell plowing huge grooves behind the kit while Singleton attacks the mike with the flair of a rock and roll prophet. The latter approach can come off like a pose if you don’t have the lyrics to back it up, but Singleton does; these songs are vivid, impressionistic story-poems that he powers through like a preacher in his pulpit.
Like its predecessor, sophomore track “Blacked Out Windows” immediately locates a heavy groove that it occupies for the next two and a half minutes, pulling you into a rhythm where Singleton’s strums and Harrell’s beat form the hypnotic foundation as Singleton declares “[r]ock and roll might not save my soul / But it might buy some time.”
“Keys To The Kingdom” opens with tribal thunder as Harrell executes a big, galloping drum riff before the guitar comes in on top with a sort of menacing rockabilly feel, and Singleton begins to speak-sing the vocals like he’s been possessed by the ghost of Lou Reed. It’s another edgy socio-political commentary that primes the engine for the frenetic “The Winning Side,” where Singleton discovers a fresh bloom of desperation in his vocals. Here and throughout this album, Singleton’s baritone guitar has a skinnier, more urgent sound than the standard instrument, turning Zeppelin-esque in the nearly-out-of-control solo section.
The title track features swampy slide and percussion as Singleton growls “It’s dark out on the road, the pavement’s starting to crack / Carrion on the median for miles.” The entire song—the entire album—is an allegory for the destruction of America’s soul by capitalism and materialism run wild. By the end, the central riff feels like the clarion call of the apocalypse.
If anything, “Two Guns” is darker yet, a virtual hellscape of moral depravity in which it becomes clear that worse than even than greed and cruelty is the sin of apathy. On its heels, “Animal Song” is the first track here that doesn’t feel like a cataclysmic event, working off a steady midtempo rhythm for the first 1:50 before they layer on a second guitar for the solo. There’s still a coiled intensity lurking inside the lyric, though: “I’ve never felt more like an animal than I feel today… Gotta keep my composure, I’m building a wall” trying to hold that animal in.
The shadowy, churning “Let Your Love Go Down” suggests that “There’s friction between God and the market / I mean, it’s like you can’t trust either one of them anymore… I know I’m never gonna win / I know I’m runnin’ out of time.” And then “Plow Song” delivers the coup de grace, a mostly acoustic number that carries all the intensity of its predecessors, a surrealistic poem essaying the moral bankruptcy of modern society, ending with the punchline to it all, a chilling message to every middle class person trying to get ahead in a game that’s been rigged by the rich and powerful: “And you will die / Pushing that plow.”Capital could just as easily have been titled American Apocalypse; it’s that ferocious, that grandiose, that intense. It’s an album that won’t work for everyone, but it worked for me, not just because I dug the dark poetry of Singleton’s lyrics, but because ultimately, when you strip away its lyrical ambitions, this album is all about groove—and groove gets me every time.