Shrimp Boat: Speckly (2005)
An almost-lost masterpiece of American songwriting, first released in '89 out of Chicago in a limited edition of a thousand vinyl copies, and otherwise unknown and unavailable until this CD edition, Speckly is on the face of it a strange album for AUM Fidelity to release. Not only is it a reissue, but it is in a completely different bag from nearly everything else on the labelrock 'n' roll with infusions of bluegrass, country, jazz, and a little blues and mariachi.
It turns out that Speckly fired AUM auteur Steven Joerg's imagination when he heard it by chance in '90, and he's wanted to put it out himself ever since. It's something of a prequel, because last year AUM released a four-CD box set of previously unavailable Shrimp Boat material under the title Something Grand, chronicling the band's existence from the mid-'80s until its breakup in '93.
So what does Shrimp Boat actually sound like when you come across it for the first time, like most of us will encounter it, sixteen years after it was recorded? I guess a little like The Band's music might have sounded back in the Big Pink basement. It's Arcadian, even if the guitars do sometimes sound like a cooled out "Sister Ray"; it's as American as apple pie, not to mention grits and burritos and gefilte fish, and it's running over with hummable hooklines and choruses. A mix of barnfloor stomping dance numbers, off-planet instrumentals, and sandman lullabies.
But this is AUM, so Shrimp Boat is also out there, and in a way that's different from any other band. The lyrics, for instance, are generally indecipherable, but it doesn't matter, because their meaning is in the sound, not the dictionary. And the horns, heard on about a third of the tracks, are something else again: Ian Schneller and David Kroll, fine guitarist and bass guitarist respectively, are technically challenged, if not frankly overwhelmed, trumpeter/saxophoniststhey sound completely untutored, their techniques rudimentary, their tones rough-cut and their relationship to diatonic harmony in denial. But somehow that doesn't matter; it's done with such innocence and lack of guile. From the relatively straight banjo-led reading of "Shady Grove," the only non-original on the album, through to the mutoid hoedown of "Hyatt Ridge Circle Dance," dissonance sits happily with lush melody.
The original liner notes, written by Walter Andersons, are as quirky and engaging as the music itself. They relate that Shrimp Boat's material is "driven by soul and poetry (and) celebrates the imagination, the hallucinations and the dream... the music makes ease and virtuosity available to this time as if it happens ahead of us." So now you know. Oroonie.
There's something indefinably special and magical going on here, and it makes you feel good to be alive.
Track Listing: Planter's Song; Seven Crows; Melon Song; Greenhouse; Shady Grove; Lemmings Leap; An Orchid Is Not A Rose; Triangle Song; Green Island; Speckly; Houston Tower; Drought Of '43; Hyatt Ridge Circle Dance; Country Wagon.
Personnel: Sam Prekop, vocals, guitar; Ian Schneller, guitar, vocals, trumpet, cello; David Kroll, bass, banjo, tenor sax; Eric Claridge, drums. Brad Wood, recording and mix engineer.