Making one's way through this sprawling four-disc box set -- three time-period-based albums and a bonus disc of tracks from all periods -- one is dizzied, aggravated, awed, irritated, bludgeoned, and humored into accepting this document as something that stands far outside the official indie rock histories. Shrimp Boat, a Chicago band that existed between 1986-1993, had a shifting lineup, and in its last two years an expanding one. Founding (and only constant) members Ian Schneller and Sam Prekop fashioned a music that served them well, ultimately, in the Sea and Cake, but they also directly influenced Chicago's indie scene forever and acts like Liz Phair, Tortoise, the Handsome Family, and Falstaff generally and genuinely acknowledge that debt. To read the whole story, dig deeply into the 52-page booklet that accompanies this handsomely packaged set. Album number one contains 17 tunes and was recorded between 1986 and 1988. This is the sound of a playful chaos, as willing to dig into the musical ideas of Ornette Coleman and John Cage as it was the pre-indie lo-fi ethos. "Songs" are found, discovered, stolen from silence, and hacked from noise. Vibe and adventure were the name of the game; the band tried things for no other reason than it was possible. It's an abrasive set, but it's funny as hell and it was all recorded on four-track audio.
Disc two is the bridge, where sound and feel and craft begin to wind their way into the band's identity. Recorded live on 16-track, here is where there are actual strengths to be displayed -- from Prekop's preponderance of textures and insinuations with this voice and guitar, to Schneller's chord voicings and lead lines playing intuitively and instinctively to draw the song out of the experiment. There are lovely and jarring moments here, such as on "Kickball," recorded at Chicago's Cabaret Metro in May of 1992, or in Schneller's cover of the Carter Family's "You Are My Flower," where he recorded everything himself, or perhaps "London Dew," from a radio broadcast in 1990 with Brad Wood playing a lovely soprano saxophone. Disc three, while it has its sense of playfulness and twisted glee everywhere in evidence, is actually a focused set of songs pointing in the direction of the Sea and Cake and Falstaff. Elements of airy harmonies, less frenetic rhythms, and an expansive sense of songcraft are endearing here, not to mention the savvy pop skill displayed by Prekop and Schneller. Elements of country, blues, jazz, edgy jangle, and the feeling of a monkey wrench being tossed in so things don't get uptight push this material up to the realm of a kind of art in a cheeky orgy of sound. As wild as some of this material is -- and it gets crazier on the fourth disc where everything is simply mashed up together -- it's never pretentious. Its primitivism early on is what made the whole thing so believable in the first place. One cannot hear music by Fred Lonberg-Holm, or even later Gastr del Sol, without hearing traces of Shrimp Boat in the mix somewhere. Highly recommended for anyone interested in secret histories.