The bedsit troubadour, toiling away in obscurity at home, with more ideas than connections, recording mini-masterpieces year after year; it's a
proud and flourishing tradition within popular music. Advances in technology, good quality four-tracks and software like ProTools or Garageband,
mean there’s less need to seek out like-minded collaborators nowadays; those people who once helped a budding singer-songwriter learn his (or
her) craft. Doing it yourself is a great way to improve under the radar, to generate hundreds of songs so that, when the wider world finds out about
your talent, whatever’s unleashed by a record company can be the pick of this stockpile, startlingly accomplished for an unknown novice.
The nineties were a particularly fertile time for such reclusive eccentrics, men in their thirties who spent months beavering away in obscurity,
before breaking onto a wider musical scene to live out their rock star fantasies in public. It worked, for Guided By Voices’ Robert Pollard and his
Dayton, Ohio pals, as well as Stephen Jones’ idiosyncratic Babybird project, a man who probably makes a decent living from the ‘You’re
Gorgeous’ royalties to this day.
Then came that more recent sensation, R. Stevie Moore, who excited the blogs by supposedly arriving fully formed. Since 2010 Moore has
proffered songs embodying everything great about the history of pop (at least for the journos). But although Moore didn’t perform live or record in
a proper studio until his late fifties, this bearded maverick has been taping compositions since 1968, and self-releasing albums at a rate of almost one a month for forty years, totalling four
Around the same time that Moore (right) arrived on the scene a similar breakthrough was made by one Dean Wells. The Lyndonville, Vermont native had been issuing home recordings of
oddly-named song fragments for over a decade and, along the way, he made a key contact in Matt LeMay (formerly of American
indie rockers ‘Get Him Eat Him’) when the latter reviewed a batch of Wells’ self-released recordings for Pitchfork (the ‘Euridice
Proudhon’ and ‘Environ Maiden’ LPs). Herein LeMay describes Wells’ as “a true pop craftsman”, and asserts “his songs are among
the best being written today”.
That may be so, but Wells’ tendency for muffled production and a resolutely lo-fi aesthetic ensured he would never break out of extreme
obscurity, and Dean’s new associate must have thought this a shame. Whether it was a natural development, or if LeMay persuaded
Wells to go hi-fi himself, I don’t know. But when Dean took a shot at the (relative) big time, he certainly utilised his co-conspirator; this
newly-trusted lieutenant. LeMay didn’t simply produce and mix, he played every instrument the frontman couldn’t manage, including
bass, drums, organ and “add’l guitars”.
Their working relationship brought about a truly obscure Classic Album, The Capstan Shafts’ only hi-fidelity effort and sole ‘physical’ release, 2010’s ‘Revelation Skirts’.
It’s a record that encapsulates everything that’s good about Wells’ take on pop, and a CD you can play to anyone who enjoys guitar music without getting asked whether it’s supposed to sound that way. Because what
LeMay (left) gave these brief nuggets was a burnished sheen, the accessibility all lo-fi types need if they’re going to receive airplay, attention, or even
transmute what had been a hobby (however obsessional) into that most elusive of promises, a career in music.
Which is not to say that everything unique in Wells’ songwriting gets lost with this increased professionalism. His efforts still rarely stray over the two
minute mark, with ‘Revelation Skirts’ boasting fourteen slices of indie-power-pop in little over half an hour. These songs also illustrate his fondness for
wordplay or abstruse terminology, being called things like ‘Your Wasted Is A Talent Here’,
‘Miss Stelliferous’ or the punning ‘Heart Your Eat Out’.
Musically too, the endless output of Guided By Voices is a good reference point, not least because Wells’ voice sometimes sounds like a more urgent Tobin Sprout.
That said, he shows none of Robert Pollard’s fondness for Who tributes or prog rock. Instead, the tracks on ‘Revelation Skirts’ divide broadly into two categories
which have in common hummable earworms, propulsive verses and soaring choruses; concise epics all built around “vocal melodies, a steady beat and familiar
The first type are the stormingly upbeat numbers, like opener ‘Fairweather Triumphalist’ with its ascending guitar figure, undeniable
tune and noisy ending. Or second track ‘Let Your Head Get Wrong’, which finds Wells trapped in a one-way relationship, trying to
become “another scalp on your belt” before acknowledging “you don’t like me that way” in this truncated, skew-whiff anthem.
Indeed, romantic uncertainty and unsatisfying interaction with the opposite sex appear to be loose themes holding this set together, as embodied by the heroine of the brilliant ‘Class War
Tease’ where the singer is “not the least bit sure, that you could be any more”; squealing riffs detonating below the lyrics as guitars are overdubbed for impact. Then comes ‘Quiet Wars’,
perhaps the catchiest thing here, starting with distant squalls and distorted vocals then blossoming into a brief epic of symbolism; personal storm clouds and the passing breeze. Or
what about ‘Versus The Sad Cold Eventually’, with it’s enormous “give the cheerleader a cue” hook? Wells urging some lover to “get off your temporal stance” as this undeniable tune
unspools into a lengthy, almost three-minute blast.
Such wonderful slabs of power-pop are juxtaposed with slower numbers, not quite ballads but certainly pauses for breath in the context of the whole. ‘Little Burst of Sunshine’ is
a soothing, mid-pace effort, for someone who will “pray for the raincloud that never hangs around, it just looks great”. Meanwhile the chiming ‘Your Wasted Is A Talent Here’ aligns
itself with C86 classics and Teenage Fanclub, whereby Wells’ sorry excuse for a protagonist waits out some hedonistic girl, concluding “I’m sure you’ve got your good points, but
I don’t have the time to lose". Then comes the building shimmer of ‘Versus The World Hater’, or the mid-pace yearn, underpinned by keening organ, that is ‘Successfully Into You’
or the acoustic almost title-track ‘From Revelation Skirts’, with Wells’ strongest vocal performance and a vision to “fly away with the barnacle geese”.
It’s not all magnificent. In spite of the hollered backing vocals ‘Miss Stelliferous’ fails to live up to its memorable title,
while ‘Heart Your Eat Out’ uses stop-start crescendos a little too similarly to GBV for comfort. But listen again, to the
harmonies and spine-tingling middle-eights, to the circular climax of the closing ‘Great Reset Button Of Life’ with its
thumping drums and admission: “I’m down with it, if you’re unfit to drive” and here the completeness of Wells’ musicianship, the talent on display, the way he makes it
look easy, knocking off pop classics like there’s no tomorrow, it all becomes difficult to deny.
Whether Wells relished the attention this record brought him is a moot point, but he certainly felt the urge to bring these songs to a wider audience, assembling a full
band shortly after ‘Revelation Skirts’ was released and taking the Capstan Shafts out on tour for the first time. But cheering audiences and positive critical notices
didn’t change his aesthetic much, not if 2011’s follow up ‘Kind Empires’ is anything to go by (available on Bandcamp for no money whatsoever).
Once again ‘Kind Empires’ was resolutely lo-fi, to the extent that many may find it unlistenable, unless they like their
music to sound like it was recorded in a cupboard. Still, at least Wells had lost none of his knack for song titles,
as the likes of ‘Porn Name Equations’ or ‘Garbagetime Pumpfaker’ attest.
I’d assumed this was a stopgap, some placeholder before the next LP proper got recorded, but shortly after ‘Kind Empires’ all activity around The Capstan Shafts
ceased. The touring ended and, four years on, we still await their next release, with no indication of activity from Wells since a posting on Facebook for gigs back in
After that, well, it’s a mystery. Did Wells decide he’d spent enough time in the limelight? Did this man come to the conclusion the
lifestyle of a professional musician wasn’t for him? Did his family and day job start to take up too much time? I’ve no idea. If anyone
does, please get in touch. For myself, I find it hard to believe that someone who wrote four hundred songs during his first dozen years
trying hasn’t produced anything since 2011. The bug doesn’t just go away, not if R. Stevie Moore or Bob Pollard are anything to go by.
Perhaps Wells returned to his bedroom and four-track, recording for private gratification rather than public consumption once again. If nothing else sees the light of day, we still have a
sizeable body of work, and one record that stands up with anything the big-budget, major label guitar bands produce. For now, at least, that has to be enough.
‘Revelation Skirts’ is available as an imported CD, new or secondhand, from Amazon and other retail outlets at a reasonable price. Three other Capstan Shafts albums can be
downloaded for a donation at the Bandcamp website.