You think you’ve got 90’s Chicago down don’t you? You’ve got every Tortoise release on vinyl up to Standards and you own The Sea and Cake’s first two full lengths. Shrimp Boat is in your top 5 bands of all time and Kentucky is your second favorite state. If this is all true then you can stop reading this reviewer who has only an intermediate understanding of the subject and put your copy of Cavale back on the stereo. But I’ll bet the sad reality is that most probably own Millions Now Living Will Never Die and have only heard of The Sea and Cake before (Shrimp Boat who?). And that’s fine guys. No worries. We can take care of this right now.
To be honest, I was ready for a test of my patience. I mean, I love a lot of prog/post/experimental (whatever you wanna call it) rock but a whole box set worth intimidated me. I just finished reviewing a Stereo Total album full of contrived, two and a half minute atrocities so the idea of sitting through sixty-plus tracks of this particular brand of rock and roll was scary. But I can go ahead and tell you right now that my patience was not tried once throughout the duration of Something Grand. Instead, I came away from it with a heightened appreciation for Shrimp Boat and the feeling that I have been privileged to have heard this music. Something Grand is comprised of out-of-print and unreleased material, all of which should be deemed purchasable for fans of Sam Prekop or everything Chicago. These recordings are the sound of Chicago post-rock in chrysalis—the tape experiments are there along with some genuine, heady noodling, but Shrimp Boat were once far away removed from the scene that they helped start. The word ‘folk’ gets tossed around when people speak of the band, and I’m not about to disagree. Anyway, in certain instances both folk and post-rock share a tremendous amount in common. I will say however, that the bands musical output was so varied that they can not be so easily pigeonholed. There is a lot more to be found in Something Grand, which covers a vast musical terrain through a career spanning retrospective.
The bands progression is clearly discernable when listening to these discs. On disc one “Rocks Are Oil” starts with surf guitar, misleading you before friendly banjo plucking enters the fray with Prekop’s friendly warble. “Only Making Fools” is a crazy amalgam of drums, guitar and saxophone at first before morphing into a tight, twangy melody—these recordings are not particularly smooth or refined; practically every song carries a certain kitchen-sink aesthetic. This is understandable, considering most of this stuff was never properly released…or recorded for that matter.
Right away the second disc sounds cleaner and more robust than the first. “Watched Pot” is a fun jam with a nice chorus/melody, the first real song type song (you know, like the commercial radio type…ok, maybe not). “Heart of the City” is one of the most experimental tracks here, a mix of out-of-tune guitar, meandering synths and something else, I don’t know what. A lot of the songs on the second disc are much different than the first—less folky, more experimental and instrumental. “Wonderful Wonderful” gets pretty crazy. It’s like a hyper jazz number, though clearly not improvised. Wild saxophone sputters throughout atop bouncy bass and light cymbal hits, and for some reason it reminds me of the theme music to Cowboy Bebop (did I just say that?). “Melon Song” is indie pop and features a sweet chorus, as well as some of my favorite singing in this collection. Disc two showcases a more developed Shrimp Boat—all of these songs are polished and the band’s greatness really starts to show. There’s just so much great material here I feel like I have to mention it all. “I Can’t Wait I Cannot” is another success, a late-night drive home instrumental piece that isn’t very complex but creates a wonderful mood. Then you hear the applause at the end of the song and realize it was a live recording. The third disc continues to follow this development, while the fourth bonus disc (relegated to the first 2000 copies) collects a few odds and sods
A lot of the later music in this collection is close to the Shrimp Boat that most will remember (if they can in fact remember them in the first place); a tight experimental rock band that more people should have heard about. Just listen to “Honeyside” and try to tell me that it doesn’t ring nostalgically in your ears as if you had heard and cherished it long ago. That’s not to say, though, that this is an essential purchase for everyone—some won’t think twice about a band that, while sparking one of the most prolific scenes in indie rock history, doesn’t get referenced the same way that Slint and Tortoise do. Shrimp Boat wasn’t “the best band on the planet" as CMJ claimed in 1990. Rather, they were a really great band, whose general overlooking is yet another example of how indie rock dooms certain bands only to mythology.
- Andrew Iliadis
/may 15th 2005/