The Invisible Chicago Experiment
Chicago’s Shrimp Boat is often overlooked as merely a starting point for the jazz-influenced folk-pop musings of the Sea and Cake, the group formed by Sam Prekop and Eric Claridge after Shrimp Boat dissolved. There were sprawling stylistic moves by Shrimp Boat throughout their existence, shifting in turns from arty splatters of sidewalk shuffle replete with poetic word association to free jazz skronk numbers to melodic exercises in skewed time signatures. This new three-disc collection (four-disc if you get one of the first 2000 sets) is bold evidence of a prolific group that carved out a unique place in the jazz-saturated environs of the Windy City. And with only one of the cuts on Something Grand being previously released out of 51, even fans of the band’s previous work will find a bevy of wonderfully disparate material from their early days in 1986 up to their unfinished final album and breakup in 1993.
Throughout this collection, one element prevails that defines the spirit of Shrimp Boat: stylistic fearlessness. In various lineups, Prekop and Ian Schneller shared much of the guitar and vocal duties, with David Kroll on bass, banjo, and tenor sax, Eric Claridge on drums and bass, and Brad Wood on drums and soprano sax, with Joe Vajarsky supplying tenor sax as well. When the group started out, the apparent naiveté with which they played a weird strain of jug band music and arrhythmic lunges makes for adventurous listening. It is an inherent feeling during the span of the group’s existence that someone would bring in an idea or influence they’d encountered that week, and the group would try something in that vein. The bravado of their tinkerings with so many off-kilter things, from the barebones Tin Pan Alley feel of “Born in a Sour” to the chug of “Can You Spare Some Change” on the first disc, show them as unafraid to experiment. In these early years, there might only be a snare and high hat for the percussion, with toots of horn and Prekop’s near-yodel croon wandering aimlessly atop the rhythm. There is also a time capsule of sorts called “Ollie’s Song”, with a skiffle beat clanging away with the occasional dialogue in the background, while a tape of Oliver North’s testimony in Iran-Contra rolls on.
So the lab work continued. They were often holed up in their Archer Avenue loft, which served as recording studio and rehearsal space as well as working area for the then-aspiring painter David Kroll, whose work adorns the cover of Something Grand. Amidst easels and canvasses were meandering power cords and instruments; they recorded most anything they tried out. This box set was assembled from nearly 400 hours of unreleased tapes, from the four-track work in the loft through 1988 on the first disc, to studio demos and live cuts from gigs and radio on the second, and ending with the tracks intended for a last album. On the second disc, the joyous exuberance evident in those early recordings carries on, with a bit more focus and tightening of the framework, lashing those free tendencies to the occasional lamppost for balance. “Hey Buddy, What’s Wrong” is all yelping and skittering affection, before coming to rest. “Wonderful, Wonderful” is a strict jazz number, with some free play working within a mid-paced bop structure, while, not to leave a stylistic stone unturned, the group attempts dub reggae with “Limerick Dub”, but of course, it still has that Shrimp Boat wobbly feeling that makes it all their own.
By the third disc, the band is working in sold forms, with fantastic cuts like “Truck” and “Slave Reel” showing their vitality with their own work, both dissonance and folky ruminations. “Shrimpcore” has a post-punk rattle to it, with the whole group singing through “When My Hand Is on the Wheel” riveting like a bawdy pub tale. There is much foreshadowing in this period of what was to come with the jazzy pop of the Sea and Cake, with more melody and cooing vocals, too.
Something Grand opens our eyes to the world of a band that made an indelible mark on independent music coming out of Chicago during the mid-‘80s to now, shedding overdue light on the work of an eclectic and important group of artists. Shrimp Boat issued several albums on their own Specimen Products label and Bar/None before their break-up, but this collection reveals so much left untouched. To have so much by them become available now is thoroughly unexpected and fantastically satisfying.