There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
Don’t be fooled by their nautical name: The Vulgar Boatmen are, in fact, a roadfaring people. The 21 tracks on the new Wide Awake, culled mostly from the three albums the Gainesville, Fla./Bloomington, Ind.-based group released between 1989 and 1995, teem with as many cars as the Beltway on a Monday morning. But for all the potential freedom four wheels offer, the drivers populating the Boatmen’s elliptical lyrics often end up going nowhere: The road tripper of “Wide Awake” can’t quite tell his passengerpresumably an exwhat’s really on his mind. The narrator of “We Can Figure This Out” seems paralyzed by the auto-related headaches involved in planning a long-distance tryst. And the guy who sings the disc-opening “Change the World All Around” gets no farther than the end of his girlfriend’s driveway. Traveling too far afield, it seems, just isn’t the Boatmen’s thing: Musically, they hew to the sturdy, simple roots pop favored by original member and Silos co-founder Walter Salas-Humara. When they need a solo, they usually turn to viola player Helen Kirklin. Wide Awake’s liner notes frame this approach as a triumph of self-effacement over self-indulgence, and that seems about right: Even at their chimiest (“Calling Upstairs,” “Heartbeat”), guitarists Dale Lawrence, Robert Ray, and Matt Speake seem more interested in building a song up slowly and surely than in jockeying to replace Roger McGuinn. Still, a few tracks do break the mood a bit, especially the punkish live cut “Cry Real Tears,” whose crackly guitar solo makes you understand why the band split into stage and studio factions early on. And the chorus of “Decision by the Airport”something of an inversion of John Denver’s “Leaving on a Jet Plane”too cleverly turns a location into a time. Add the side of ham the words are served with, and the track comes closer to novelty than the rest of the disc. But “Cry Real Tears” and “Decision by the Airport” are both strong songs, and they certainly aren’t enough to turn a solid retrospective into a 75-minute grab bag. There may be a few Boat-rockers on Wide Awake, but on the whole, it offers a smooth ‘n’ steady rideno matter what the mode of transportation. Joe Dempsey