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How Bastro and Shrimp Boat reinvented 'punk'

Most listeners now associate guitarist David Grubbs with his work with Jim O’Rourke as Gastr del Sol, or with recent solo outings that intertwine musique concrète strategies with harmonically advanced acoustic picking. But from 1988 to 1991, before giving vent to his inner Pierre Henry (and John Fahey), Grubbs fronted the less overtly art-driven Bastro — first with a drum machine and fellow Squirrel Bait founder Clark Johnson on bass, then with a pre-Tortoise John McEntire and Bundy Brown. Released on Grubbs’s own Blue Chopsticks label, Antlers documents the latter line-up’s final months via live performances of material that never made it to the studio — at least not in this form.

To call Bastro’s music less cerebral than its members’ present output isn’t to call it cock rock, only to say that it was well in line with the prevailing underground-rock æsthetic of its time. Like many of their Homestead label mates — and the Touch and Go and SST stables — these players had shed the "no-technique" credo of punk proper while holding fast to its confrontational notions about volume and physical intensity. Bastro’s debut EP now sounds like Big Black minus some verbal shock value; the full-lengths Diablo Guapo and Sing the Troubled Beast (Homestead) are more individual, but waves of distortion and angsty, brooding vocals still obscure subtleties of composition and instrumental interplay. (Drag City will reissue the group’s entire catalogue later this year.)

It was a period style — and one the trio were rapidly outgrowing by the time of the Chicago and Hamburg shows heard on Antlers. As of 1991, the vocals had been dropped, so these seven pieces are less songs than vehicles for the dynamic precision of Bundy and McEntire and for Grubbs’s increasing reach as a guitarist. On the climactic "Beatlenacht" and "Glistery," you can almost hear him changing his mind about which direction he wants to push the band: Derek Bailey abstraction, Fugazi-style simmer, or full-tilt freakout? Despite McEntire’s liner-note claim that these performances "exist in a disembodied, ahistorical world," Antlers documents a band, and maybe even a scene, at an impasse. When the same three players recast the material on Antlers for Gastr del Sol’s The Serpentine Similar (before O’Rourke joined) a year later, it had turned almost entirely acoustic through what Grubbs now calls "a unilateral disarmament. . . . After Bastro, it was a revelation to hear an unamplified instrument."

Although not, perhaps, if you’d been following Shrimp Boat, another Chicago-based group whose members are now better known for other projects. (Sam Prekop and Eric Claridge play alongside McEntire and ex-Coctail Archer Prewitt in the Sea and Cake; drummer Brad Wood, who had the longest tenure, made his name as a producer with Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville.) The box set Something Grand (AUM Fidelity) brings together three discs of mostly unreleased material — four, if you track down one of the first thousand copies — and an unusually well-produced accompanying booklet in which AUM head Steven Joerg calls the project a prime impetus for founding the label.

Why the red-carpet treatment, especially for a band forgotten by all but an enthusiastic and committed few? Shrimp Boat were free of machismo and — well before the rise of the Chicago’s alt-country movement — far more open to folksy textures and song forms than most of their contemporaries. Among the earliest tracks, from a pair of 1988 cassette releases, are guitar-and-homemade-banjo duets by Prekop and fellow visual artist (and band founder) Ian Schneller. Even when Prekop sings "I’ll be six in December" in an untutored squawk, the faux naïf feel is never arch, closer to Howard Finster than, say, Calvin Johnson. As the line-up filled out over the next several years, the songs’ jamming-near-the-tape-deck origins became less evident, the rhythms more insistent. On hearing live versions of "Drought of ’43" or the highlife-inflected "She Ra" from the band’s ’92-’93 heyday, you can believe the booklet essays’ tales of spontaneous circle dancing at their shows.

With this much material, there are bound to be some blind alleys: for every horn-driven gem ("Warzone"), there’s something like "Ollie’s Song," a lengthy collage of accordion and Iran-contra testimony that’s interesting mainly for revealing what they did on the way to the good stuff. Listeners acquainted with the group’s official releases will want to snap up Something Grand; others, Sea and Cake fans included, ought to test-drive the still-in-print Duende and Cavale (both on Bar/None) before plunking down for this set. Even hardened souls who don’t find themselves susceptible to Shrimp Boat’s peculiar charms may be surprised to find that some of the music that preceded what’s now thought of as "post-rock" didn’t exactly "rock" in the first place.

Issue Date: March 11 - 17, 2005
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