We Can Figure This Out:
Reintroducing the Vulgar Boatmen
by Kyle BarnettWe Can Walk: Drifting with the Vulgar Boatmen
In the early 1990's, the Vulgar Boatmen garnered critical attention across the United States and Europe. The band's first two albums - You and Your Sister (Record Collect, 1990) and Please Panic (Safehouse, 1992) had been mentioned in several year-end (and a few all-time) "best of" lists. In 1995, the band made its major label bid with European release of Opposite Sex, released by Blanco y Negro/East West, subsidiaries of Warner Bros. Despite supportive press from the UK and interested parties in the US, the album was never released in the United States. Over the subsequent years, the band disappeared - or so it seemed to many fans. What happened to the Vulgar Boatmen is probably the most commonly repeated narrative in popular music: a promising band with strong critical accolades and a growing fan base gets lost in the machinations of the music industry. The Vulgar Boatmen have just released a new album, Wide Awake (on No Nostalgia); a collection of songs culled from their first three albums as well as some previously unreleased material. For those outside the band's regional stomping grounds, this album marks a long overdue return. But none of this begins to tell the unusual story of the Vulgar Boatmen.
I won't feign objectivity on this subject. Like Michael Jarrett - who along with Greil Marcus contributes liner notes to the new release - the band is too close to my own first-hand experiences to claim otherwise. While Jarrett's first experiences with the Vulgar Boatmen took place in the band's home base of Gainesville, Florida, I was introduced to the other Vulgar Boatmen in the band's other home base of Indianapolis. The Vulgar Boatmen is actually two bands; each fronted by one half of the collective's songwriting duo, Robert Ray (Gainesville) and Dale Lawrence (Indianapolis). Nearly all stories on the band (including this one) go to great lengths to explain this arrangement, but the practicality of the solution leads to another question: why hasn't this happened more often?
I discovered the band that would become the Vulgar Boatmen in the late 1980's. I had returned to Indianapolis from Chicago to find a rich mix of bands making up the local scene. Among these groups was Right to Left, a band that I quickly began thinking of as a down-home Hoosier version of the Velvet Underground but with no trace of that band's New York art damage, more intimate than remote, and with an overt love of songs (Stax/Volt and Chicago rhythm & blues, country tunes, post-Beatles garage rock, and the propulsive drone of bands like The Feelies and New Order). Here was a band that effortlessly traversed sub-genres through finding in them a commonality with what was once called rock 'n' roll - a music built around simple chord structures, insistent rhythms and elliptical lyrics about everyday life. Here was a rock 'n' roll band you could dance to, and we did.
Over a relatively short time, Right to Left drifted into a quite interesting working arrangement, born out of the songwriting relationship between Dale Lawrence and Robert Ray. Lawrence, the songwriter and leader of the Indianapolis band, had been a long-time songwriting partner of Ray, a film studies professor at the University of Florida. Ray had taught a film studies class in which Lawrence was a student. Lawrence had also caught Ray's attention through his involvement in Indiana's first punk rock band, the Gizmos. As the 1980's progressed, Ray had become a central player in Gainesville's Vulgar Boatmen (whose early line-up included The Silos' Walter Salas-Humara). A songwriting-by-mail strategy had Lawrence (in Indianapolis) and Ray (in Gainesville, Florida) playing increasingly similar sets in their respective bands. Right to Left changed its name to the Vulgar Boatmen and one of the most unusual arrangements in rock 'n' roll came to be.
The band toured the U.S. and Europe over the next few years, in support of You and Your Sister and Please Panic. By 1992, the band had gained momentum and it seemed as though the Vulgar Boatmen were on the verge of reaching a larger audience.
What happened instead was a three-year wait for the next release, Opposite Sex, which was released by Blanco y Negro/EastWest (both divisions of Warner Bros.) - in Europe only. Back in the U.S., the band was caught up in music industry machinations. Several of Warner Music Group's U.S. subsidiaries - most notably Elektra and East/West - were interested in the American rights to the band. The band eventually signed to Elektra (yet another Warner subsidiary). "Elektra was supposed to issue Opposite Sex in the States," Lawrence explains. "Seymour Stein liked the album a lot...but we were warned that Elektra was in the middle of a shake-up at the upper end -- specifically that Sylvia Rhone (who hated rock 'n' roll) was taking over." Elektra signed the band but never released a song. Shortly after taking control, Rhone dropped fourteen bands from Elektra, including the Vulgar Boatmen.
Since Opposite Sex was not released in the United States, fans outside the band's usual stomping grounds began to speak of the band in the past tense. While the Boatmen never really stopped working, progress certainly slowed. "We always had trouble convening musicians," Ray says, "who lived in so many places... But I must say that the failure of Elektra to release Opposite Sex, after having contracted to do so, made recording seem more narcissistic than even I had ever intended." Ray believes that "you do write songs and record them 'to please yourself,'" but when the band found themselves unable to get their music released, they turned to other outlets.
For Ray, his other outlets include his academic day job. He published two books that challenged the film studies orthodoxy, The Avant Garde Finds Andy Hardy (1995) and How a Film Theory Got Lost (2001). Meanwhile, Lawrence continued to perform and write songs with the Indianapolis band, though shows became fewer and far between. He researched and wrote his highly entertaining (and esoteric) road guide to Indiana high school basketball, Hoosier Hysteria Road Book and played piano in bassist Jake Smith's band, The Mysteries of Life. Various other members moved here and there. Families grew, time passed. Life goes on, right?
The band's most diehard fans, frustrated by the lack of new material, sought out import copies of Opposite Sex and turned to swapping live recordings culled from the Indianapolis band's shows and looked for rare copies of the Florida Boatmen's early cassette releases (Women and Boatmen First in 1982; All Bands on Deck in 1984); the pre-Boatmen Right to Left releases (Right to Left on Tape, 1988, and a few songs contributed to 1987's hard-to-find Black Brittle Frisbee compilation), as well as the song that the Indianapolis Boatmen contributed to Hear No Evil, a Monkees tribute album. The song the band covered, "The Kind of Girl I Could Love," somehow sounds older than the original version, closer to Sun Records-era Elvis than anything the Monkees ever recorded. The stripped down, impromptu feel of the take make an otherwise disappointing compilation worth tracking down.
Over time, the Indianapolis line-up has evolved into the current roster, with Lawrence on guitar and vocals; Jake Smith on bass and vocals; Andy Richards on drums; Kathy Kolata on viola and Sophia Travis on organ and accordion. Along with Lawrence, Matt Speake was one of the earliest members of the Indianapolis Boatmen and a crucial part of the Boatmen's sound. The Gainesville lineup has fewer members, having lost early band members including Carey Crane, who lead vocal on the live version of "Cry Real Tears" is included on Wide Awake. These days the Gainesville Boatmen only rarely play live shows. Ray notes, "Attrition in university towns seems the law of nature; people, even musicians, graduate and leave town." At present, Gainesville members include Robert Ray on guitar and vocals, Ray's wife Helen Kirklin on viola and Michael Derry on drums and guitar. Various members have also been involved in other musical projects: Jake Smith continues to front the Mysteries of Life and Helen Kirklin plays in the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra as well as various chamber ensembles in central Florida. What is most interesting about all these different musicians that convene under the Boatmen moniker is how the band manages to make music with a focused aesthetic.
Do You Like Good Music?: Influences and the Problem with Nostalgia
The Vulgar Boatmen's aesthetic first really took shape in the mid-1980's. Their rhythmic guitar attack had commonalities with the propulsive, incantatory feel of The Feelies' The Good Earth and R.E.M.'s Murmur. Like these bands, the Boatmen were rediscovering roots music that began with the stripped-down attack of punk. Lawrence says, "The mid- to late-eighties were probably the last time I felt connected to pop music as something bigger than personal taste. There was a sense of competing in the mass market with something like a common aesthetic." Ray notes: "I loved both records (Murmur, The Good Earth), although I almost never return to the Feelies, whose remote, indifferent vocals make their records seem oddly pretentious. R.E.M. showed how a band without any traces of R&B could still prove absolutely electric, but I think that they lost their way after the first two albums, although they could still deliver the occasional masterpiece..." The Boatmen turned to older source material for inspiration. By the time You and Your Sister came out in 1989, the band was out of sync with what had come to be called alternative rock. In part, this has to do with the band's choices of different source material than their musical peers.
The band has never been slaves to their influences, managing to reference music more than half a century old without a hint of nostalgia in their delivery - an important, if not commonly understood aspect of the Vulgar Boatmen's sensibility. In this sense, they treat popular music's past and present as a kind of library to be browsed. It just so happens that the Boatmen (sometimes obliquely) reference music rarely used by their contemporaries. The band is particularly drawn to the place where country and rhythm and blues come together: Bo Diddley, the Everly Brothers, the "5" Royales, Buddy Holly - not necessarily to pay homage (and certainly not descend into parody) but as a means of making good music that remains contemporary. What makes this so counter-intuitive in the present context is that the borrowing from one musical era to another seems to be increasingly literal. Inspiration becomes reproduction. For instance, the Faint come closer to a wholesale reproduction of the Cure or Bauhaus than the Beatles ever did with the Everly Brothers or Little Richard.
Commenting on why the band's love of early, rhythmic rock 'n' roll - particularly rhythm and blues - is not always recognized in the band's music, Ray (who attributes his love of R&B to a childhood spent in Memphis) suggests, "Neither Dale nor I (nor anyone currently on the planet) can sing like Otis Redding... I listen to Bo Diddley (especially "Hey! Bo Diddley") every single week, and I own, and regularly play, every Impressions album." Lawrence says: "Whether it's subtlety on our part or the fact that that era's music tends not to be taken as seriously as it deserves to be, I'm not sure." It's certainly not unusual for a given set of musicians to draw on musical influences that are not always directly evident in what fans are familiar with or have even heard.But how can a band whose sensibilities are as likely culled from decades-old music from across genres not look at that music nostalgically? "Nostalgia is the great enemy for that very reason," Lawrence says. "It reduces everything from the past to the same level. There is music from the 1920's (not to mention the 1950's) that sounds much more modern... not because it sounds like it was recorded last week, but because it still holds up, makes me want to listen to it. Roxy Music or Little Richard or Rodgers & Hart speak to my life in ways that Eminem or the Strokes do not. As pianist Mary Lou Williams once said, 'All eras in the history of jazz are modern.'" Ray says, "The steady slide of the word 'nostalgia' into a pure pejorative rests on the assumption that nothing in the past could possibly have been as good as something now or in the future. No one who thinks about it, however, could possible decide that Buddy Holly and Bo Diddley are 'inadequate' compared to, let's say, John Mayer and Ben Harper."
"Roxy Music or Little Richard or Rodgers & Hart speak to my life in ways that Eminem or the Strokes do not." - Dale Lawrence
While allowing that "No one has much in common with what passes as popular music in the early 21st century," Ray describes both he and Lawrence as having "catholic (with a lower-case 'c')" tastes that include music from the past and present. Music currently in heavy rotation at the Ray household includes the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Duke Ellington, the new Roxy Music live album, and Rosemary Clooney singing Richard Rogers. Lawrence finds himself writing about and listening to lots of mashups (aural concoctions which mix genres, e.g. Nirvana and Destiny's Child or The Strokes and Christina Aguileira - a favorite of file-swappers and DJs). He is also a fan of the Scottish band Texas, Kate Rusby, Oliver Mtukudzi and Missy Elliot. Both Lawrence and Ray currently are enamored of a Ben Lee song called "Hard Drive," from the new Evan Dando album. Despite (or because?) of their taste for disparate musical approaches, the band's own music seems to be on what Ira Robbins has called "a singular course."
While the band's eclectic tastes don't prevent them from offering a relatively uniform sound, it's at live shows where they display some of these influences (or at least a preference for a given song, however unlikely the source) more directly. A short, random list of those covered by the Vulgar Boatmen's live show include the English Beat, Fleetwood Mac, the Modern Lovers, Sam Cooke, Fine Young Cannibals, Stereolab, Pere Ubu, Gene Chandler, Shaggy, and the Velvet Underground. No matter the source, what seems most important is whether a given song does what it's supposed to do. I have sometimes judged songs on whether or not I can imagine the Vulgar Boatmen covering them.
Wide Awake: Present Projects and Future Plans
The band has returned with Wide Awake- the first Vulgar Boatmen album in eight years and their first in the United States since 1992. After their record company misadventures of nearly a decade ago, the Boatmen have released Wide Awake on their own No Nostalgia label and have plans to re-release the first three Boatmen albums in the next few years. Wide Awake is a compilation of the band's favorite songs from their first three efforts and includes several unreleased songs. A few songs have been remixed and all have been remastered. The project is worthy of the extensive liner notes by Marcus and Jarrett; the band's own history is complicated enough to necessitate it.
The songs included on Wide Awake include tracks from their three albums to date, some of which have been remixed for this release. Also included are unreleased songs: "Anna" is a countrified soul number, familiar to those familiar with the band's live shows, that sounds like a lost Sam Cooke tune or maybe an early Beatles number. But perhaps the most amazing new addition is an acoustic reworking of "Mary Jane." The original version of "Mary Jane" on You and Your Sister is a driving song with lyrics suggesting something between hopefulness and desperation: Ray's quietly urgent vocals sound like hoping against hope; the intricately repetitive rhythm guitar which occasionally burst into full chords; the propulsive drumming punctuated by Jonathan Kaley-Isley's (and on other songs, Andy Richards') trademark staggered snare beats. In comparison, the acoustic version is barely there.
The song begins with a simple pattern on acoustic guitar. The next sound we hear is Lawrence's soulful vocals. Lyrically, what was once an insistent song, a nervous willing something to be, is now rumination, dreamlike and intimate. By the middle of the track, a viola and some keyboards are playing a few simple notes, creating a melodic drone. Lawrence's vocals are no longer words but sounds, because maybe words don't work anymore. Like in "Anna," there is the sense that the song's protagonist loves a woman who is somehow unattainable. But in this version, he is closer to resignation - but not able to fully face it. It is unclear whether the object of his affection was once with him - and this is a love gone wrong - or the woman has always been out of reach. The lyrics seem to be the voice of someone absentmindedly talking out loud - like we're listening in on a daydream. If anything, this song stands as a perfect example of how the simplest songs are often the most evocative.
Wide Awake offers listeners a chance to reevaluate material from the previous albums. Both Lawrence and Ray have noted that the process of deciding what would be included wasn't easy. Ray says, "It's hard to be surprised by songs whose details I've heard so often, but "Fool Me" seemed much better than I remembered, one of my favorite things on Wide Awake. I don't like the recording of "Margaret Says," which I regard as one of our best songs. But the key is too high for me to sing in, and the arrangement is not as good as the one that evolved in live playing. It's one I would like another crack at. I wish that "Shake" had made the list. And "The 23rd of September" and "When We Walk."" Lawrence says the process of choosing songs has made him appreciate little moments within the songs, including "the way Matt's guitar sound fits so perfectly on "Allison Says," [former member] Jonathan Isley's snare sound on "Mary Jane," the way Michael Derry's brush work sets up Robert's guitar on "Calling Upstairs."" Lawrence wishes that "You and Your Sister," "Katie," and "Genie Says" could have been included on Wide Awake.With the release of Wide Awake, the Vulgar Boatmen will be venturing out of their usual live circuit (Indianapolis, Chicago, and Bloomington, Indiana). A short east coast tour is planned by the Indianapolis Boatmen for the fall, as well as an increase in dates closer to home. There are also plans for the re-release of their albums on their own label. That, however, doesn't satisfy those waiting for an album of all new songs from the Boatmen, a band with an impressive list of unreleased songs - tunes that have been familiar for many years to those who have seen their live shows.
"Why does Mick Jagger-at-60 seem silly, but Muddy Waters didn't?" - Robert Ray
It's also unclear when the Vulgar Boatmen's branch operations will unite to play together again. "I've never heard the Indianapolis band play when I'm not playing with them," Ray says. "Whenever I have joined the Indianapolis band, rehearsals involved finding a compromise between two different senses of time: Dale and his band tend to play on the beat; I tend to play and sing behind the beat. Since they are better musicians than I am, the compromise has involved their adjusting to me, for which I'm grateful."
"Why does Mick Jagger-at-60 seem silly, but Muddy Waters didn't?" asks Ray. This question about the role of aging is a serious one for a band who, as Marcus mentions in the liner notes, released You and Your Sister when Lawrence was 32 and Ray was 46. Why is rock 'n' roll still so associated with youth while so many other genres don't seem to pay as much attention to whether jazz, country or blues players are 25 or 65? The Boatmen continue to play music once so strongly associated with the young without ever falling into caricature.
Wide Awake signals renewed activity from a band that has never been given the chance to reach the larger audience it deserves. While Lawrence and Ray have the requisite skepticism of the music industry that comes with age and experience, the band has the opportunity to bring new material to a larger audience in due time. Both Ray and Lawrence are modest about the Vulgar Boatmen's accomplishments to date and cautious about their future. "It will be interesting to see," Lawrence says, "how much latent interest in the band (if any) the compilation uncovers." It's hard to imagine indifference, particularly when the band hits the road again.
In the song "We Can Walk," the lyrics reference the ritualistic aspects of playing yet another live show ("There's a line on the corner/there's a band playing somewhere/the whole room starts shaking...") The best kind of music has the power to remove the listener from everyday life (paradoxically, often through singing about everyday life), so that you no longer care what day it is, what time you have to get up tomorrow, or how much the beers cost at the bar. Things can change once the band starts playing, a few people get their courage up - and everybody starts shaking.
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