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Shrimp Boat - Something Grand

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Artist: Shrimp Boat

Album: Something Grand

Label: AUM Fidelity

Review date: Sep. 16, 2004

Although it’s almost always a critical cul-de-sac to attempt to discuss a band’s locale in reference to their music, it’s always hard to resist, especially in relation to bands from Chicago. Perhaps because the bands in the city do tend to share a certain aesthetic sense, writers from across the land have attempted to parse the “Chicago sound,” only to find its essence disappear before them. They might be trying too hard. Many of the city’s seminal bands emerged in the 1980s when Chicago was a relatively depressed place, and as the city’s industry fell dormant, there were suddenly masses of cheap space available to artists and musicians. Add to that a sprinkling of art schools, cheap beer and cold weather, and it’s not surprising that the lakeside metropolis sent forth more than a few groups.

Another difficulty is that this “sound” doesn’t exist. For every Sea and Cake you have a Shellac; in spite of Wilco, there exists the Smashing Pumpkins. Perhaps what, if anything, Chicago has are some groups who insist on experimentation and iconoclasm in their music. Bands who simply love to guest on each others’ records, bands who love to play long, insane shows, bands who prize sleazy jazz as much as they adore Iron Maiden. In Chicago, there is less a sound than a sensibility, the idea that a really good band must always invent and advance to some unheard place. As a result, much of the music emerging from the city can be either wildly fresh or almost unbearably affected. And if there is one band we can blame/thank for this, it is Shrimp Boat, the Nirvana of the city’s avant-pop underground.

Featuring future Liz Phair producer Brad Wood and future Sea and Cake members Sam Prekop and Eric Claridge, the band took inspiration from almost every kind of music, and radiated a literate, refined aesthetic. Indeed, as a band that featured two painters and an instrument-maker, Shrimp Boat were not afraid of seeming brainy. However, they were too free-spirited and crowd-pleasing to come off as pretentious, and as a result, they were widely adored in Chicago’s underground.

To read through the liner notes of this set of unreleased material is to be given a snapshot of a city and a time long vanished. Originally formed as a three-piece by Prekop, Ian Schneller, and David Kroll, Shrimp Boat would expand and contract several times in its life, with Ian’s brother Eric and producer Wood playing important roles at various points. Early on, the band secured a loft space in Chicago’s South Side, affording them the opportunity to practice and record almost constantly. This process allowed them to produce music at an extraordinary rate, developing exponentially and leaving behind a massive stack of recordings. As a result, hearing this collection is really the only way to get a sense of the band’s wide-ranging sensibility and almost pathological urge to experiment.

Though they had an ardent local following and produced three still-revered albums, the band was simply too prolific to put out more than a sliver of their recorded output, and as a result, Something Grand should be a revelation for neophytes and old-schoolers alike. For many of us, Shrimp Boat are a footnote, the band that some other guys were in before the Sea and Cake. Something Grand instantly erases this notion. The music here is simply stunning, virtuosic and almost unbelievably laid-back, careening wildly from polka-style dance to free-jazz freakouts, Delta blues, noise and gorgeous ballads. It’s also the sound of a band clearly enjoying themselves, either in the studio or on stage. While early shows found the band playing room-clearing sets of improv, later shows would involve Ukranian-style dance circles and beer-fueled mayhem. Within the liner notes, one fan tells of regular trips from NYC to Chicago expressly for the purpose of seeing Shrimp Boat shows. How many other bands inspire such devotion?

What really stands out here is the sheer commitment to music, a group of people relentlessly committed to their vision. Their first couple of albums were only limited cassette runs, created for the sake of documentation and personal enjoyment rather than careerism. The result of their focused approach to recording and innovation is that no one song does the band justice. This kind of sensibility needs the sort of sprawl afforded by the multi-disc set, where live tracks, noodled fragments and highly polished songs can rub shoulders. On Something Grand you have the faux-punk of “Shrimpcore” nestling against the blues-dirge “I Don’t Mind the Bums,” the slick pop of “Honeyside” followed by the gentle beauty of “Those Hookers.” Lyrically, the band were as freeform as they were with their music; Sam Prekop admits to frequently inventing new lyrics each time he sang. Chicago’s industrial bleakness and down-and-out characters are reflected in the imagery, but really the words function as hooks and levers for the music to spin and fold around, a means by which loose sound can be corralled into something resembling a song.

A tip of the hat should be given to Steven Joerg of Aum Fidelity, who has given an enormous amount of care and time to the production of the box set, from song selection to artwork to the scrupulous liner notes. Bands like Shrimp Boat deserve this kind of treatment and it’s exciting to see it done right. As far as assessing the band’s place in history, their influence goes deeper the more you hear them. Even excluding current bands who owe SB a direct lineage, their sly, anarchic spirit and jazz-inflected textures can be found running through groups too numerous to mention, in Chicago and beyond. Hyperbole runs thickly through the critical landscape (as it always has and almost assuredly always will), but Shrimp Boat can shoulder any accolade you would care to bestow upon them. They lived this music and loved it, and these are sounds that things like commerce and age can’t touch.

By Jason Dungan

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