From 1985 to 1993, Shrimp Boat was a vibrant and vital part of the Chicago indie scene. Their oeuvre
encompassed a variety of material, and presaged many of the trends that have populated that city's fertile musical landscape ever since: post-rock, math rock, funk, alt-folk and avant-jazz. Moreover, Shrimp Boat alums have continued to make stirring music; Sam Prekop and Eric Claridge were founding members of the Sea and Cake, while Brad Wood has been active as a producer and performer (most notably on Liz Phair's Exile in Guyville
). As such, it's difficult to overstate the band's influence.
Aum Fidelity's carefully assembled and lovingly annotated three-disc boxed set retrospective presents a strong collection of the group's material, including many out-of-print tracks, B-sides and previously unreleased songs. For the most part, the set eschews duplicating material from the two Shrimp Boat CDs that are still in print, Duende and Cavalle (both on Rough Trade). The album artwork is culled from paintings by band member David Kroll. The liner notes also include two affectionate and insightful essays by Walter Andersons and Aum label head Steven Joerg, who states that one of the primary reasons he started his label was in hope of one day bringing out a Shrimp Boat box set. This is quite a treasure trove for fans and collectors, but even the uninitiated will find the depth and breadth of material included here to be well worth their exploration.
The discs are arranged more or less chronologically, except for the fourth disc, which is found only in a limited run of the boxed set and is filled with various odds and ends. The first disc is the most rough-hewn of the bunch: some of the band members are still in the developmental stage of technical prowess on their respective instruments. But even when one of these early musical experiments falls on its face, like the out-of-tune barbershop quartet number "Shimmy Shimmy Shimmy", there is no denying the band's creativity, bravery and exuberance. Other songs are just stunningly effective, especially when you consider they are being made by (at this point) journeyman musicians who were trained as visual, not performing, artists. There is a quaintly affecting alt-folk number, "Sourwood Mountain", on which strummed banjos and acoustic guitars are offset by whistling and stripped down percussion. The avant-rock "Only making Fools" is more aggressive: a bass ostinato and howled vocals compete with slide guitars and walls of noise in an off-kilter, quasi-improvisatory formal design. "Mimi", on which Schneller and Prekop yawp with gleeful abandon over the latter's blues-inflected guitar solo, is another barometer.
The second disc shows the band really coming into its own, with assuredness supplanting enthusiasm and a significant improvement in the band's ensemble coordination. There's still an ample amount of humor present, as evidenced by the yodeling vocal chorus to "Hey Buddy, What's Wrong". Part of Shrimp Boat's charm is their ability to encompass both whimsy and experiment within a larger musical texture; neither force is permitted to hijack the material, but both of them strongly (and often simultaneously) influence it. The cartoon character-inspired "She Ra" balances the simple construction of a lilting country dance with electric guitars and veritably howled falsetto vocals -- a terrific concoction. But not all of the songs consist of juxtapositions of disparate musical elements; "Watched Pot" shows the band taking the subtlety down a notch and just rocking out, post-punk style.
Disc three presents Shrimp Boat at the height of their powers, assailing such formidable terrain as avant jazz and polymetric math rock. Despite these outward-bound excursions, it also includes some of their most engaging melodies. The 1992 recording "Honeyside" is buoyant pop, a bounty of musical detail. The arrangement includes a vigorous bass/drum groove, a double time guitar riff, a sing-song falsetto vocal chorus and a saxophone section. "Rocks are Oil" takes its cue from eighties bands such as REM, layering twangy reverberant guitar over a dash of banjo and slurred vocals. "Motorcade" puts a skronk saxophone solo on top of a syncopated surf guitar riff. Watch for the waywardly chromatic guitar solo, too.
The limited edition's fourth disc often depicts the band at their most exploratory and daring, going as far as to include a crazed duet version (by Prekop and Schneller) of the theme song from the seventies television show All in the Family, "Those Were the Days". Despite this, perhaps the most curious selection here is "Ollie's Song", a twelve minute opus that includes spoken word excerpts of Colonel Oliver North's testimony at the Iran-Contra hearings, accompanied by mock-epic crescendi and "boom-chuck" acoustic guitar strumming -- a tongue-in-cheek parody of Zappa-esque proportions. Also included are some killer live cuts, like "Beanfield" and "Boots of Spanish Candy", both culled from a February 1991 set at the Czar Bar in Chicago.
Shrimp Boat had attitude, creativity and musical chops to burn. While it's a pity that there aren't tons of bands active today recording music that is this inspired and quirky, Something Grand is quite a reminder of how polystylistic music-making should sound. Releasing a box set in the current soft economy (which is particularly soft in the recording industry) is a gutsy move on Aum Fidelity's part, one that flouts conventional small label business practices in favor of adding something indispensable to Aum's catalog. Something Grand might just be the best 2004 release that you haven't yet heard. If so, correct this oversight straightaway!