The Bilge Pumps,
We Don't Know
(self-produced, 2000)

I'm sure there must be a point, perhaps a private joke, in the opening dialogue on We Don't Know by the Bilge Pumps. But "Gull Skeet," which seems to depict someone shooting a seagull for no apparent reason, is not an auspicious beginning to this CD for those of us not in on the joke.

From there, the seven-man, Texas-based band moves on to music, focusing primarily on sailing songs -- hence their affectation as pirates, each member boasting a pirate name and wearing pirate clothes.

The band is Evan Cannon (Squint the Lookout), John Crane Jr. (Crack the Quartermaster), Craig Lutke (Maroon the Shantyman), Patrick McAlister (Squeegy the Cabin Boy), Mitch Newstadt (Mitch the Bosun), Robert Trotter (Phil McGroin the First Mate) and Michael Younger (Kaelyn Dammit the Gunner). Each is credited with vocals, a few add various sorts of percussion, and McAlister and Crane add guitar. Each man also lists "tone deaf" among his contributions to the album ... and, alas, that seems at times to be a true statement.

The Bilge Pumps approached the songs as a real sailing crew might -- no instrumentation beyond percussion (the guitars are used very sparingly), relying solely on their voices to carry the sound, sometimes in the traditional call-and-response style so familiar in songs like "Blow the Man Down" (a track on which the band sounds disappointingly bored).

Unfortunately, despite obvious enthusiasm and buckets of vocal potential, the album falters. "Mary Ellen Carter," one of my favorite Nova Scotian songs about a crew's real love for a sunken ship, lacks emotion. The war-crazed "March of Cambreath" is one of several songs in which vocal harmonies clash; although it's only a brief 1:28 in length, the track had me wincing long before the end. The vocal acrobatics through "Mingalay Boat Song" seemed to be striving for a jazzy flair, but the style didn't mesh well with the song.

More successful is their rowdy, off-beat interpretation of "Johnny Jump Up," an increasingly popular song about the perils of hard cider. The Bilge Pumps hit their stride with this one; kudos to Ray Proctor and Mike Younger for the infectious arrangement!

They also peak in the sort of vocal harmonies they seemed to be searching for all along in the final track, "Sailor's Prayer." It's marred, however, by a delayed "bonus" track featuring Crane's distorted snoring.

Did I mention vocal potential? I hope the Bilge Pumps keep working to hone their sound -- with effort, they could be a very effective ensemble. In the meantime, I'd skip past We Don't Know and look instead for the more polished pirate sounds of the Maryland-based band Pyrates Royale.

[ by Tom Knapp ]



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