Posted by: – Sep 11, 2009
As I stood on the pier on August 29th waiting to board the Eagle I, my mind kept rolling over the same memory: I’m sitting in my car at the tender age of four, listening to what I now know as late-period Chicago and nodding in and out of sleep on my way to visit my grandparents in Southern Virginia. I remember feeling at ease and sedated in a way that’s almost alien to me now. Fast-forward two decades and I’m poring over the proposed set list of soft rock hits to be performed by the group Three Sheets to the Wind and attempting to re-contextualize all of the music that hit me only as faint wisps when I was a kid.
Talking about the genre of what is considered Yacht Rock used to be simple. It was a loaded, icky term that held under its umbrella all the bourgeois excess of the 70’s and 80’s and brought to mind the patently inoffensive sounds of groups such as Captain and Tennille, Toto, and the ever-loathed Christopher Cross. However, during the past decade, Yacht Rock has come back full-force to take over the charts and gnaw its way into the youth of America like a surly brain parasite. The leader of this resurgence? The Shins. A patently inoffensive band whose shuffling rhythms, breezy melodies, and often sunny disposition found their way in many American homes by the mid-decade thanks to cheerleader Zach Braff and a host of other minor players. This helped pave the way for such smooth sailors as Fleet Foxes, Vampire Weekend, Grizzly Bear, and Sufjan Stevens among others to slowly bring complicated chord structures, upbeat attitudes, classic pop structures, and hallucinatory flashes of Cape Cod back into vogue. As of writing this, Grizzly Bear have released their single “While You Wait for the Others” off of their album Veckatimest with Michael McDonald of Doobie Brothers/Steely Dan fame-singing on the A-side. Soft rock is hip and nothing imploded!
Before seeing Three Sheets to the Wind in their natural habitat, I familiarized myself with their set. This meant a week of revisiting Boz Scaggs, Hall & Oates, Seals & Croft, Toto, and the inimitable Steely Dan among others. This seems like a pretty mundane task, but it’s almost impossible to find proper context for much of this music in everyday life. Listening to Christopher Cross when you’re stuck in traffic makes you fucking pissed at how calm he is sailing on a boat, with zero concern for anything except the open sea. Toto seems to make everyone angry, which made me resort to headphones, and even then the production makes the band seem as if they’re floating in some sort of uncomfortably clean plastic bubble inches above you. Steely Dan manages to break this mold by being uniformly badass. Now, I realize this is still heavily disputed, and I can’t lie and say that I’ve always felt this way. I had a close friend push this band on me for close to two years before picking up Katy Lied and Aja and realizing that was there was a lot more wit, darkness, and painfully sharp hooks in these records than I could have ever imagined. This, coupled with bands I absolutely loathed (I will never be able to sit through an America song) provided a nice skeletal outline for my evening. Now it was time to add the swaying boat and liberal amounts of bourbon.
Three Sheets to the Wind set up on the upper deck of the boat to the soundtrack of DJ Pablo Escobar, his satin soundtrack easing the impatient passengers waiting impatiently in line for drinks. At this point I started to wonder to myself where the culture of irony had gone. Sure, there were plenty of people in nautical attire but there was no wink-and-nod bullshit happening as it used to constantly at parties like these. This wasn’t to say that things were reverent by any means (I heard The Lonely Island’s “On a Boat” three times), but there was zero bullshit. This may have had something to do in part with the fact that we were surrounded by water. There’s less snide condescension thrown around at a party that you quite literally can’t leave.
After hitting the downstairs bar, I returned to the upper deck only to be greeted by an enthusiastic performance of Toto’s “Rosanna.” It may sound insincere, but the gentle rocking of the boat numbed any of the frustration that would have hit me in any other type of cityscape. Under any other circumstance I might quickly erase that sentence, but that was my epiphany. For all the slurs tossed at yuppie culture it feels wonderful to be sitting on a boat under the night sky listening to well-composed songs by a band that really gives a shit about giving them life. Seals & Croft’s “Summer Breeze” was stunning and almost uncomfortably evocative, and Hall & Oates’ “Rich Girl” killed it. No exaggeration. Even discussing it now feels like describing an awkward sex dream about a high school teacher or your best friend’s mom.
The night ended the way many of my car trips as a child did. I fell asleep. I know it’s a terrible party faux pas, but it goes to show that Three Sheets managed to put me into some wonderfully regressive childhood state in a deck chair aboard the ship as it sulked back to the dock.
Article: Landis Wine, Images: Jon Headlee