The last time this blog caught up with the Sideshow Tragedy, it was a couple of years ago late on a Friday night in the red neon backroom at Zirzamin, and the Austin noir blues band was killing it. Really killing it. Guitarist Nathan Singleton was airing out his bottomless bag of jagged minor-key licks, drummer Jeremy Harrell had a murderous stomp going and there were some special guests, if memory serves right – it had been a crazy night up to that point. Fast forward to 2015: Zirzamin is sadly gone, but the Austin band has a new album, Capital, streaming at Continental Record Services‘ site, and a similar small-room, Friday night show, in this case at the Rockwood on May 22 at 11 PM. This usually sedate space is in for a serious jolt of adrenaline, tempered slightly by the fact that the new album is somewhat more spare and haunting than the band’s previous, often unhinged gutter blues attack. It’s a concept album, a sinister, brilliantly metaphorical portrait of a nation gone off the rails in an orgy of greed and mass desperation. Fans of Humanwine will love this.
“Summer’s here, and the tramps are on the move, ten to a trailerbed from Chicago to LA…you can taste the decay,” Singleton broods in Number One, a corrosively relevant, cynical portrait of haves versus have-nots over a riff-rock groove that other bands would have turned into metal, but these guys do as a shuffle. Likewise, Blacked Out Windows, with some harmonically offcenter multitracks, could be Sonic Youth, but instead Singleton runs the riff over and over for an ominously hypnotic vibe: “Smoke and mirrors closing in…his carnival calm is easy to believe,” Singleton warns. “The palms of the priest are easy to grease.”
Singleton more or less talks the apocalyptic lyrics to Keys to the Kingdom as Harrell beats a frantic, funereal pulse on his tom-toms. The Winning Side, a similarly frantic, scampering anthem, sounds like Dylan’s It’s All Right Ma, I’m Only Bleeding at doublespeed: “It’s not the thought that counts,” Singleton muses grimly. The title track works a dusky midtempo slide guitar groove, a caustically aphoristic parable of the 21 st century going back into the dark ages in a hurry. “You listen to the police scanner as your write your report, better fill your quota while you got time…you can’t see the horizon ’cause it don’t matter right now, so rob the beggars blind,” Singleton taunts. It’s arguably the best and most relevant song anybody’s released this year.
Two Guns pairs Harrell’s shuffling, misty cymbals against Singleton’s uneasily precise slide guitar and menacing stream of metaphors: “The rockets’ eternal red glare, the shooting off of lights and flares, it’s getting dark out there.” So when Singleton finally reaches the point where he works a song around a major-key hook – with the only slightly less troubled Animal Song, which wouldn’t be out of place in the Marcellus Hall catalog – there’s a sense of relief, however temporary.
Let the Love Go Down returns to a death-obsessed theme with a series of fire-and-brimstone metaphors over a relentlessly rolling and tumbling drive.The album ends with Plow Song, a spiky resonator guitar-fueled trip through a postapocalyptic landscape where you’re bound to end up with “a gun for all seasons and a bit in your mouth.” Powerful words from a Texas band. Best album of the year? One of the top handful, no question.