The Vulgar Boatmen’s story is so unique it’s surprising they never got more traction. The product of an alliance between a jobbing Indiana musician (Dale Lawrence) and a University of Florida film professor (Robert Ray), the duo teamed with a passel of rotating sidemen to release three solid LPs. But since Ray had no appetite for touring, the duo created separate iterations of the Boatmen to play venues in the Midwest and Southeast – out of pragmatism rather than animosity. In theory this approach allowed them to cover twice the turf it but may also have been their commercial undoing, as it removed from live performance the sublime harmonies that critics fawned over as reminiscent of Phil and Don Everly.
File You and Your Sister under forgotten gems. It’s twangier than The Good Earth era Feelies, more Midwestern and less swaggering than the Silos, with whom the Boatmen shared DNA. Fans of either of those contemporaneous bands will likely be pleased; the lifting of the album’s title from a post-Big Star Chris Bell single is another signifier.
This 1989 debut is the band’s consensus high water mark – at its most pedestrian it sounds like the Bottle Rockets, which is a pretty impressive floor. A few years later they might have found a home in the expanding Americana genre, but Ray’s and Lawrence’s magic worked best when they broke away from verse/chorus/verse constraints and locked into a jangly groove – as on the six-minute “Drive Somewhere” (sung by Cary Crane, a mainstay of the early Boatmen Florida contingent) and the urgent, four-minute “Change the World All Around,” both of which somehow sound roughly the same length. The best examples of their magical harmonies come on the rollicking “Fallen Down” and the more subdued title track.
The Vulgar Boatmen’s jokey name belies their lyrical earnestness. “Margaret Says” is about Ray’s young daughter, who was also the subject of the Silos’ “Margaret.” Things don’t get more contentious than “standing in the driveway calling your name” amid the focus on relationships and domesticity.
This reissue is rounded out by three decent bonus tracks – one an obscure Monkees cover, another that would fit on a pre-Murmur R.E.M. rehearsal tape. My choice would have been 1992’s follow-up Please Panic, and hopefully that one won’t be far behind because my cassette copy is about shot. Unfortunately, the Boatmen don’t appear poised to improve on the shaky distribution that plagued them the first time around – reportedly their titles have yet to crack the 7,000 mark. No matter – You and Your Sister is worth tracking down.
The Vulgar Boatmen
You and Your Sister