OK, so they don’t really have potty mouths. They’re actually quite refined creatures, these “vulgar” boatmen: Robert Ray, a film studies prof at the University of Florida in Gainesville who became the common denominator of a curiously scattered group, has published several books that “challenge the film studies orthodoxy,” including “How Film Theory Got Lost and Other Mysteries in Cultural Studies,” “The Avant Gard Finds Andy Hardy,” and “A Certain Tendency of the Hollywood Cinema.” Dale Lawrence, a former student of Ray’s who would become another of the band’s many vital parts, published something of his own: the “Hoosier Hysteria Road Book,” a work whose audience one reviewer narrowed down to “those who love basketball, Indiana, and life in general.” Top that, mortals! These are no drunken sailors, folks, and this is no ordinary band. Meet The Vulgar Boatmen, the third band to earn Culturespill’s distinction as one of the best bands you’ve never heard of.
If you check out the below video of the group performing their criminally catchy and flawless pop masterpiece “Mary Jane,” we’re pretty sure you’ll quickly join us as we scratch our heads in utter disbelief at how this, of all bands, could possibly have been tossed to the cluttered dumpster of music-biz hostages and has-beens. OK, so maybe they’ve been making music long enough to have released their earliest albums on cassette (here’s what a “cassette” looks like in case you forgot), and maybe Robert Ray was 46 years old when they released their brilliant You and Your Sister LP in 1992, but their sound remains as fresh today as it was when they got their start by mailing cassettes of songs-in-progress back and forth between Indianapolis and Gainesville so many years ago.
The only act in recent memory to be split between states–described as “actually two bands” on furious.com–one foot in Indiana where Lawrence had already secured some street-cred with disbanded midwest punk outfit The Gizmos (the hell with cassettes–those guys released their first EP in 1978 on a seven inch!), and another in Florida where Robert Ray toiled by day as an aficionado of film at UF, the band worked through a thousand miles of distance and a faster turnover rate than your local Wendy’s (at least 16 people counted themselves among the Vulgar Boatmen over the years) to produce a sublime pop-rock that evokes a time when “pop” meant something other than T & A and televised custody throwdowns on TMZ.
With uniquely literate restraint and hooks so sweet you could pour them on your waffles, the Boatmen’s music is born of an affection for a time when pop meant horn-rimmed glasses and wistful crooning about a girl named Peggy Sue. Lawrence, an avid lover of Buddy Holly who introduced audiences to his spare and fascinating final sessions on a 2003 NPR segment, continues to express more sympathy for pop’s founding fathers than for their overpaid and bawdy daughters. “Little Richards and Rodgers & Hart speak to my life in ways that Eminem and the Strokes do not,” he insists. A true lover of songs, Lawrence’s musical sensibilities “traversed sub-genres through finding in them a commonality that was once called rock ‘n roll,” Kyle Barnett writes, “a music built around simple chord structures, insistent rhythms and elliptical lyrics about everyday life.”
From the gnawing anxieties of suddenly finding yourself an adult and on your own after college to the disillusioned surrender of a boy in love with an unattainable hometown girl, the songs of The Vulgar Boatmen keep their themes as simple as their music, and it’s exactly that rebuke of overwrought production or grand poses that distinguishes them as one of the most shamefully underrated bands of our time.
Kyle Barrett concedes that “What happened to the Vulgar Boatmen is probably the most commonly repeated narrative in popular music: a promising band with strong critical accolades and a growing fan base gets lost in the machinations of the music industry.” Honestly, though, they should have taken the hint when an internal shakeup at Elekra Records, their doomed label, culminated in a change of name from “Elektra Records” to “Elektra Entertainment” (because we can’t have them thinking that we make, like, music and stuff. That’s just so eew!)
So famous for their failure to publicize their own acts that insiders referred to the label only as “Neglectra”–we are, after all, talking about the same label that kicked Tom Waits to the curb after he released the most widely praised LP of his career at the time, the incomparable Heartattack and Vine–the shake-up lead to the hiring of the hugely ambitious Sylvia Rhone, a woman known for her indifference to rock music who dumped the Boatmen along with several other bands on her way to Mowtown Records as Elektra faded into oblivion in a merger with Atlantic.
All that left the Boatmen–you guessed it–shit out of luck, just as they had been promised by Elektra an American release of their 1995 album Opposite Sex, which ultimately found its way to stores in Europe but never saw the light of day on U.S. soil after Rhone waved her flaming wand and fled (thanks, bitch). With no distribution in America and the dwindling number of alienated fans that followed, the Boatmen cruised to an early, if reluctant, retirement, publishing their road guides to basketball schoolyards in Indiana and impassioned screeds on film theory.
The band scored a mild degree of renewed interest in 2003 when they released Wide Awake on their own No Nostalgia label, a compilation of previous–and in some cases reworked (as in the masterfully stripped down renditions of “Anna” or “Mary Jane”) –takes from their first few albums. The band’s days as a fractured whole with half in the midwest and half in the sunshine appear to be over, as an aging Robert Ray bemoans the”attrition rate” in a college town where musicians graduate and go looking for their lives somewhere else. Lawrence remains active with the Indianapolis contingent, which continues to perform occasional live gigs.
It may sound like yet another story of an out-of-luck band of dreamers who found themselves on the verge of kissing the stars and instead were sent to kiss the dirt by the hard shove of circumstance, but these are no self-pitying grovelers. As this kick-ass take on “Mary Jane” from just last summer attests, these guys rock just as hard now as they did before their fall.