If the band’s songs weren’t about such mundane things as the emotional maze of regular life, and if the writing and playing of them weren’t accomplished with such exquisite subtlety and quietly obsessive focus, the bizarre story of the Vulgar Boatmen might seem simply odd, an attention-getting gimmick that would look intriguing on a record-company bio. In fact, the saga of the group with a dual identity — a sporadic studio-centered entity convened by Florida college professor Robert Ray and a remarkable international touring outfit led by Indianapolis auteur Dale Lawrence — reads like a troubled family saga in which claims to a name weigh heavy, ties that bind overcome obstacles of time and distance, and a common vision proves to be the greatest power of all.
Formed and abandoned in Florida in the early ’80s by future Silo Walter Salas-Humara, the Vulgar Boatmen eventually came to rest, in a most irregular remote collaboration, on the mutual shoulders of singer/guitarists Ray (at the time a graduate student in Indiana) and Lawrence (a veteran of Bloomington’s goofy punk Gizmos who had taken a course taught by Ray). After Ray returned to Florida, the two exchanged tapes by mail, jointly crafting songs that took shape as a sublime semi-electric pop sound melding the patient intensity and precision of the Feelies, the driven certainty of quiet Velvet Underground and the shapely melodic force of classic pop artisans. While Ray maintained a Vulgar Boatmen in the Southeast, Lawrence formed a group called Right to Left (later renamed the Vulgar Boatmen) to play the material that would eventually appear on the band’s first album. Over time, the Indiana contingent became an exceptional live act of diverse talents and unassuming intensity, augmenting its original creations with one of the most eclectic cover repertoires on the planet.
As heard on all three albums, the nebulous group’s ability to grasp and shape simple elements into three-chord (often two-chord) songs of delicate grandeur is unmatched by any of the countless groups that have attempted the same feat. With Lawrence and Ray’s high, clear voices singing intimately unrevealing lyrics about people and places, always raising more questions than they answer, the Vulgar Boatmen are as American as an Andrew Wyeth painting and as evocative as a Robert Frost poem.
The Florida quintet initially gained local notice through a pair of tiny-edition cassettes and contributed songs to Lagartija, the 1988 solo album by Salas-Humara, who had left the fold somewhere along the way but returned to co-produce and appear on You and Your Sister. If the results aren’t fully refined, the Boatmen sound is essentially in place on gorgeous songs like the archetypal “Mary Jane,” the alternately disquieting and explosive “Change the World All Around,” the enigmatic “Decision by the Airport” and the mesmerizing ripple of “Drive Somewhere.”
The debut’s characteristic features — songs, named for women (including the trademark “Margaret Says” formation), that almost invariably involve cars, a firm backbeat ticking like a clock, handsome, transforming guitar fancies, translucently elusive lyrics, more than a hint of tension in the restrained demeanor — are all upheld on the perfectly pitched and absolutely superb Please Panic. Although three different memberships for the band are listed on the back cover (a total of fourteen musicians!), the album couldn’t be more focused if it were the work of a solitary artist. The tonal equality of the singers’ voices, the claustrophobic narrowness of the stylistic approach and the writers’ consistent lyrical tenor all dispel any fear of organizational confusion. With viola adding a somber undercurrent to the airy guitars and vocals, the songs are masterpieces of carefully paced folk-pop economy, following clearly marked (if dimly lit) paths without faltering or allowing the slightest deviation from course. The better half of an unfailingly fine dozen — “You Don’t Love Me Yet,” “You’re the One,” “I’m Not Stuck on You” (all great mix-tape flirting songs), “Allison Says,” “We Can Figure This Out” and “Stop Alternating” — circle around hard decisions and mixed understandings with maddening uncertainty, acknowledging flaws and desires without giving in to either. At their best, the Boatmen can make your breath catch with an unexpected pause or make your spirits leap with a single turn of phrase.
Except for the organ that alters the rhythmic texture of several songs, OppositeSex varies little, using many of the same musicians (sixteen in all) to maintain the Boatmen’s singular course. The egregiously incongruous rock crunch and bluntly topical lyrics of the inexplicable title track (co-written and sung by first-album alumnus Carey Crane) stand out like a mastering error from someone else’s tapes, and the explicit country accents of the dull “Call Back Instead” suggest the dangers of stretching the stylistic boundaries at all. That said, “When We Walk,” “We Can Walk” (entirely different songs), “Wide Awake,” an overhaul of the Gizmos’ “Heartbeat” (a loving pop tune so instantly familiar that it must be a lost Buddy Holly or Jonathan Richman classic in some parallel world, and is an indication of how long Lawrence has been a brilliant songwriter), “Shake,” the Dobro-and-harmonica-colored “In a Minute” and “Genie Says” (in a pre-“Free as a Bird” maneuver, the Salas-Humara vocal was reclaimed from one of the band’s ’80s cassettes) make it seem as if time had stood still after Please Panic. And maybe it had.