Written by: Dave Cantrell
With their attention-grabbing name – equal parts blue collar and pure teenage snark – and the wildly unusual logistics of the band’s setup (two separate line-ups hundreds of miles apart headed by two independent-but-collaborating songwriters, Robert Ray and Dale Lawrence), Indiana/Florida-based the Vulgar Boatmen were bound to get noticed in early-to-mid 90’s, college radio-obsessed America. But of course their star’s ascendance would have been streaking comet brief had they not created the songs to back it up, a task this geographically schizophrenic band took up with a preternatural, almost indecent ease.
With their effortlessly slinking indie vibe and a melodic gift every bit the match of, say, the ‘Mats at their most rockin’ school dance accessible (not the last time the Westerberg-led lads will come up for mention here), the Boatmen’s style triggered all manner of critical touchstones, from the marginally outlandish (aside from a natural knack for classic AM radio-seducing hooks, Smokey Robinson seems a bit of a stretch and I’m not really sure where Young Marble Giants fit in) to those with considerably more standing (Ira Robbins’ comment “Buddy Holly would’ve been proud” is of particular merit, succinct and accurate) as writers all around the rock universe struggled to make sense of the Vulgar Boatmen’s unique take on the ‘deceptively simple’ pop song.
Sometimes, granted, one should simply accept that some musicians just have an inherent way with this whole ‘three chords and the truth’ business and leave it at that. Probably most times, actually. Delicacies the likes of which Lawrence and Ray concocted don’t, after all, always benefit from over-analytical scrutiny, such efforts most often succeeding only at exposing the scrambling futility of those behind the byline. It’s magic, don’t mess with it. Except, what the hell, I’ll play the fearless fool here and take my own shot anyway by categorizing the music of the Vulgar Boatmen, at least on this 25th anniversary deluxe re-issue of their debut You and Your Sister, as a Yo La Tengo’d version of early Graham Parker and the Rumour.
There is, as oft-mentioned in their time, a rocking R&B element tucked into some of these songs that would find kindred spirits on either of Parker’s first two albums (we could talk Mitch Ryder here if necessary but I doubt it is), not least the tight little charger “Mary Jane,” the lightly churning “Fallen Down” whose tempo and phrasing suggest an already R&B-flecked “Let’s Spend The Night Together,” and especially “Cry Real Tears” that I’d truly love to hear the former petrol station jockey and his reformed Rumour take a stab at and yes that’s a flat-out compliment.
But elsewhere, such as on the late-career McGuinn echoes of the title track or sprightly regional hit “Drive Somewhere” that’s the kind of track Kerouac would’ve listened to if he was a Feelies fan, the band pulled themselves back from the redline reaches of the VU meter by way of ringing acoustics and/or restlessly calm, chimey electrics and an essential grasp of the fact that perhaps what a working pop song really needs more than anything is the space and patience to get where it’s going along with an innate unshakable confidence to let it get there. “Drive” extends just shy of the 6-minute mark, a lifetime in radio-playlistland and yet it passes by in what seems a 3-minute daydream. “Margaret Says,” the marvelous, minor-chord masterclass in timeless alt.rock that could single-handedly erase all the horribly mediocre juju done in that sorry genre’s name in the 90’s (and which is the track that this writer thought was the ‘hit’ off of You and Your Sister, which shows what he knows), unspools to nearly five minutes but its honey-rich tempo and the fact it’s essentially one drawn-out orgy of a hook is so intoxicating you beg and plead during the fade-out for it to come back and never end.
That one gem alone would bank the Vulgar Boatmen a place at the sweet, garrulous table of immortals but of course there’s more. There’s the storied mystique of “Decision By the Airport” with its loping country swing that locates it this side of a folk/power-pop divide, there’s “Change the World All Around” that I swear could be Greg Sage spreading himself with groovy vigor all over a Velvet Underground tableau, there’s the ‘slow-me-down-and-love-me’ indie lament ‘Hold Me Tight” that rather longingly points to the fact that smack between Indiana and Florida lies Nashville where all the beer is flavored by lonely tears of lost but ever-hopin’ left-behind lovers, all of it executed with a peerless panache and acumen. So rock solid was the writing partnership of Lawrence and Ray that the only misstep on the album proper – and it’s barely that and this is barely a criticism – the piece of amped-up ennui “Drink More Coffee,” that enough resembles a stenciled Replacements sound to be almost actionable, was composed by band member Carey Crane and producer Walter Salas-Humara, which is certainly, more than anything else, a testament to how inescapably influential that Minneapolis outfit was at the time (and to be fair, one of the three bonus tracks on offer with this release, the Lawrence/Ray-penned “It’s a Secret,” is painted by a similar brush if a tad less overtly).
Sprawling with a modest ambition that, despite that modesty, gets away from itself to marvelous effect, You and Your Sister presents a quarter century later as not only one of the finest debuts in the age of Cobain but one of the better breakouts of American rock’n’ roll period. With it, as well, comes an opportunity to correct some neglect, as the sheer quality of the thing humbles this writer for his sorry oversight the first time around, and as much as ever makes me grateful for the reissue culture. For once the charges of sentimentality and rewashed nostalgia that often accompany such milestone releases are so deserved here as to thoroughly cancel any such pejoratives. The Vulgar Boatmen, finally and forever, are here to stay, locked in memory’s highest regard.