Bear with me. Because I didn’t really know what I was going to do with this one. Shrimp Boat were one of those bands that the cooler-than-cool people knew about. They transcended the world of Dinosaur Jr., Archers of Loaf, and Heavens to Betsy listeners and fell into the realm of Bands That Are Heard About. Hell, I owned Brian Eno, Big Black, and Smog, but Shrimp Boat scared me (I’m guessing… I’m blaming my subconscious here). Fans of Shrimp Boat belonged to that fascinating group of people who had read Finnegan’s Wake before turning 21, were home-schooled and the better for it, or had visited Connecticut to discover the roots of Charles Ives as opposed to Thurston Moore. I instinctively felt I did not belong there, considering myself Smart, But Not That Smart.
Fifteen years later (on my watch—1990 was the watershed music year for me—I discovered the Blake Babies and Pixies and promptly left behind Van Halen and Pat Benatar), and a whole lot of ducats (and time) spent on records, and I felt a little more prepared, and worthy, of listening to Shrimp Boat. I eagerly opened the package and put the CD in immediately, before taking off my coat or feeding the cats. And… nothing. And then nothing again.
I spent the next month (much longer than I should have taken) putting Shrimp Boat’s debut, Speckly, into my stereo. In the morning, in the evening. When I was in a good mood and when I wasn’t. I played it in the car and on my iPod. Through it all, things were not looking good for Shrimp Boat and myself. I wasn’t hating it; it just struck me as a recording that hadn’t aged well. I couldn’t let it go at that, though. My memory of the band and their fans wasn’t matching the sounds coming out of my stereo. So I dug a little further.
As expected all along, I struck gold. It happened over one weekend. It was the Raincoats fault, too. I borrowed a mix from a friend, one that he claimed had changed his life. The Raincoats’ “No Side to Fall In” came on and I almost cried. As I sat there all emotional, trying to explain to my girlfriend what was so beautiful about this totally weird, out-of-tune slice of music, I knew it was time for me to listen to Speckly again. This time it stuck.
If you will kindly forgive that self-serving, lengthy introduction, we can get on to the review portion of this review. Shrimp Boat’s 1989 debut is an invitation into a twisted world where the small details of life are celebrated as a matter of course. At first, it all sounds smarmy. In fact, I’m sure there will always be times when Speckly sounds like the too-smart lackadaisically using faux-sincerity to be different. “An Orchid is Not a Rose”‘s lyrics move from the title statement to “An orchid is not a coal-burning power plant”. The music shuffles through—lightly strummed guitar, oddly blaring horn—and adds its own level of seriousness. This is entertaining sometimes, and ridiculous at others. But some records are just not meant to be heard all the time, and Speckly falls into that category. When heard at the right moments, it is fun, smart, and intriguing. It can even be considered an exercise in why music should exist in the first place.
There’s no denying the reference point of They Might Be Giants in describing the songs. Shrimp Boat, though, sound more amateurish which is actually endearing. There are no clever lectures here. There are just five guys—Sam Prekop, Ian Schneller, David Kroll, Eric Claridge, Brad Wood—playing songs that speak of (lyrically and instrumentally) planting seasons, droughts, and their beloved circle dances. It’s hill music with horns. It’s college rock. It’s the opposite of U2. The sound of Shrimp Boat is the musical equivalent of a regional colloquialism: it separates by geography (the lonely whistling sound of Midwest USA) and invites by letting outsiders into that sound. Speckly is a sort of gift. You accept it, put it in a drawer, and when you pull it out, you’re always glad you didn’t just throw it away.