The Vulgar Boatmen – You and Your Sister

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 1)

It’s literally impossible to discuss the Vulgar Boatmen without strolling through their bizarre history. Dale Lawrence was a musician and college student in Indianapolis and Bloomington; Robert Ray was a graduate student (several years Lawrence’s senior) at Indiana University. Lawrence enrolled in a class taught by Ray and they hit it off, musically. Ray moved to Gainesville, Florida in 1979 to continue his academic career (he is the chair of the film studies department at the University of Florida, a published author, and also has a law degree), and Lawrence remained in Indiana, playing with his own band. They stayed in touch. Two UF students – Walter Salas-Humara (future Silos leader) and Cary Crane – formed the Vulgar Boatmen. Ray eventually joined, offering up songs that he and Lawrence collaborated on by mail. Regular mail – this is the early ‘80s, remember. Soon, Lawrence’s Indiana crew was playing the same songs that Ray’s Florida band was playing. They decided they were all, or both, the Vulgar Boatmen. The Florida contingent became the studio band, and the Indiana collective was the touring band, with some bleeding over at the boundaries, and Lawrence and Ray remained the joint main creative force.

What I Think of This Album

Yay, more songs that make me sad! Love it. Sincerely, I do love it. The songs here are evocative and misty, suggesting more than declaring, and often revolving around incomprehension, longing, and the desire for closure that we can never achieve. Other times the song titles tell you all you need to know:  “Decision By the Airport” is obviously not about upgrading to business class, and “The Street Where You Live” shocks no one when it ends with “Tell me who do you love? / Who do you love?”

“Mary Jane” chugs along nicely, and there is a chiming jangle that permeates “You and Your Sister,” which gets by on a lyrical economy that is all the more impressive for being more than sufficient to get the point across (“There is a dance this week at quarter to nine / I wouldn’t mind if you go with somebody . . . We can walk down to my house right on the corner / We can talk late in the dark in my front yard”). “Margaret Says” is more oblique but even more wonderful, with a fine vocal performance by . . . someone. The liner notes offer little in the way of useful information. The fact that the fourth song (the slow, fine “Katie”) is the third to feature a woman’s name in the title is telling.

Arpeggiated “Drive Somewhere” is arguably the album highlight, all sunsets and asphalt, tentative and propulsive at the same time. The lack of a way forward in “Change the World All Around” is palpable and moving. There are welcome pedal steel accents to cinematic (like, Jim Jarmusch cinematic) “Decision By the Airport.”

There is a slight soul feel to “Fallen Down,” lacking only horns and a time machine for it to have come out of the Stax studio, while “Hold Me Tight” is a ‘50s-style ballad. “Cry Real Tears” is likewise a throwback to Ray’s childhood in Memphis (his father, a doctor, once treated Elvis). None of these three tracks is anything special – the first half of the album is what you should focus on – but things end on a high note with the languid and dusky “The Street Where You Live.”

The band’s sound has a lot in common with the more pastoral side of the Feelies, lacking any of their nervous energy. Honestly, Tom Petty would have had hits with most of these songs. The presentation is unassuming and direct. I will say, though, that the recording is not great. You definitely need to turn this up to hear, and the vocals could be higher in the mix. The Lawrence-Ray partnership is responsible for most of the dozen songs here, with only one tune lacking involvement by either (which is easily the weakest song on display).

The Best Thing About This Album

“Drive Somewhere” transports me to another place.

Release Date

1989

The Cover Art

So much of this works. The fonts are outstanding, and I like the color palette. If the photo box had just contained the woman and the car, it would’ve been a winner. The addition of the cropped color photo of a guitarist on stage ruins it. It looks messy and lacking in confidence.

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