You and Your Sister, the first album from Gainesville, Florida's Vulgar Boatmen, typified an emerging new movement in American alternative rock. Like New York's Silos and Canada's cult faves the Odds, the Vulgar Boatmen played music that had more in common with traditional rock 'n' roll than most 1980s pop: simple guitar-bass-drums interplay, 1-4-5 chord progressions, trace elements of R&B in the sway of the rhythm. But the iconography was different.
In place of the bars, brawls, one-night stands and live-fast-die-young restlessness once considered emblematic of rock 'n' roll, the Vulgar Boatmen offered quiet houses, long-term relationships, stasis, streetlights. You and Your Sister mapped out an uneasy marriage between domesticity and rock 'n' roll, centered around languid, good-hearted melodies ruptured, every so often, by a lurch of barely controlled frustration or anxiety. ²The catalyst for exploring the tension between being settled and rocking hard came from Silos front man Walter Salas-Humara, who co-founded the Boatmen in the early Eighties. Although he left the Boatmen in 1984, Salas-Humara returned to produce You and Your Sister for the band. His participation helped garner his former bandmates some much-needed publicity.
But while every Silos album has been better than its predecessor, and while Salas-Humara and co-writer Bob Rupe consistently display a mastery of genres and emotional expression, they still sound uncomfortable when they crank the volume up. On the band's self-titled 1990 major-label debut, The Silos, low-key charmers like You're the Only Story I Tell" and the whimsical ÔPorque no" easily overwhelm the attempted rockers. With their not-quite-loud-enough guitars and halfhearted lyrical pugnacity (Don't talk to me about my baby!"), those attempts sound not so much fake as clumsy. The Silos are a wonderful group. But they've yet to prove they're a rock band.
With a single song, meanwhile, the Vulgar Boatmen punched through the rock 'n' roll barrier with astonishing ease. Change the World All Around," from You and Your Sister, begins with guitars murmuring a welcoming, major-key opening. The drum taps along behind it. The singer describes, in the plainest terms, Last night I went driving/Right by your house." And suddenly the snare bursts in, the volume surges as the chorus (Sometimes, I just want to change the world all around") erupts and then the whole thing dies back down to the opening murmur. Just what it is, exactly, that is troubling the singer is never defined. Nor does the trouble ever completely puncture the gentle, loving surface of the song. And yet the trouble exists. Change the World All Around" is a rock 'n' roll anomaly: a soothing song about being agitated. A happy song that seethes. But it is unquestionably rock 'n' roll.
On their long-awaited new album, Please Panic, the Boatmen have sacrificed a little of their edge for the consistency of a disciplined groove. The addition of unobtrusive organ and viola parts intensifies the fireplaces-in-living-rooms intimacy of the songs. And if singers-songwriters-guitarists Dale Lawrence and Robert Ray yank the reins a little tight at times, pulling up shy of the leap that lifted Change the World All Around," their reserved, subtle playing is peppered with an ever-widening vocabulary of possible sounds.
We Can Figure This Out," for example, opens at a rollicking, staccato clip. During the chorus, Lawrence and Ray let their hands linger just a touch on the strings, producing an anxious, swelling chord which that loping gait almost manages to trample. Almost. Elsewhere guitars chatter, murmur, grumble, soothe, lash out and dart back, engaging the listener in a far more complex musical conversation than the deceptively smooth surfaces would suggest.
The best songs on Please Panic occur in bunches, and seem to grow out of each other. ÔFool Me," the band's most successful attempt yet at languorous, Otis Redding-style slow soul, works because it doesn't overreach its boundaries. The song has a hook, but the hook keeps evaporating into the mix like a will-o'-the-wisp, leaving the singer stranded out where the movies close down." The next song, You Don't Love Me Yet," has the same singer with The radio off/There's a pillow in the back of the car/So I'll go home." On the word home," a single pluck at a guitar string trips the song into motion, and a flush of warmth spreads through the music: I'll spend the night/Wake up tomorrow/And be all right." In rock music, even this new, semidomesticated rock music, the road provides at least as much of a haven as home does. But here it's home, rather than the road, that cannot be shaken.
The closing track, The 23rd of September," wraps up Please Panic on a warm if not exactly high note. It's the 23rd of September/The sun is shining." Even this song is tempered by loss, by the faint tang of regret at the tail end of being young. And yet it rocks, uncomfortably, but powerfully, on. All that's missing from Please Panic are the unexpected moments of near-exuberance that dot You and Your Sister, where the fog bank of uncertainty evaporates for a while. The wordless, joyful humming that punctuated Margaret Says," the stolen-day sweetness of the title track and the cathartic near-release of Change the World All Around" made the first album more complete, more sustained, than this one.
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The music on Please Panic is hardly grim, but it's tense, and the absence of any release becomes exhausting. The Boatmen display a rare (in rock, anyway) understanding of how gray even good lives get, but, unlike the Silos, they neglect to mention how many shades of gray there are. And how colorful some of them can be.
And yet they remain the best band this kinder, gentler alternative rock has produced. They outrock the Silos-and the Odds, who, despite a handful of stellar songs, lack both the sincerity to carry off their sweeter impulses and the attitude to make their louder, thornier songs convincing. Because they have become adept at balancing a longing for peace with a longing to escape it, the Vulgar Boatmen sound most at home inside rock music.
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