Cerberus Shoal never had a consistent sound for all intents and purposes. Their lineup shifted with every new album it seems, only multi-insrumentalist Caleb Mulkerin and bassist Criss Sutherland remaining constant, and each influx of new members created a shift in the band's dynamics. The band's first incarnation was pretty much Slint with even more emo overtones, then an addition of various other multi-instrumentalists pushed the emo influences down and made one of post-rock's earliest triumphs in 1996's ...and Farewell to Hightide. The most pronounced shift though, occurred when the remaining trio from those two incarnations (Mulkerin, Sutherland and drummer Thomas Rogers) fused with another northeastern trio, tarpigh, for a quartet of albums recorded between 1997 and 2000 (though Mr. Boy Dog wasn't released until 2002 for some reason). This period marks the most fruitful period in Cerberus Shoal's career, with 3 of their best albums alongside their worst (the too droney for its own good Homb) all of which explored a different step towards their current avant-folk by way of musical theater sound. There's still plenty of post-rock influence here, especially on Crash My Moon Yacht and Mr. Boy Dog's largely instrumental pieces, but it's not applied with the same sort of cliched dynamic payoff formula that (slightly) hampered Hightide.
Crash My Moon Yacht was the last album recorded during the tarpigh/Shoal days, and it plays as pretty much the culmination of everything that the bands' collaboration had worked up to since their initial foray (1997's Elements of Structure and Permanence.) The two sides, Shoal's post-rock going avant-folk and tarpigh's odd blend of Americana with eastern instruments, are working in perfect harmony and as the two band's post-collaboration efforts will attest, pushed both bands into a similar sound. Of course when Shoal added Colleen Kinsella to their ranks they went so far down the rabbit hole that it was almost impossible to recognize them as the same band taht made...well, any of their first 6 albums really, and tarpigh weren't active enough post-Shoal to really develop an identity of their own, though 2002's Go Hogh Wild is a nice enough addition to the budding freak-folk scene, but comparing the two bands circa 2003 it was easy to hear where the influence of the collaboration had taken each of them.
The key to the collaboration is that as a trio, tarpigh weren't the most standard of lineups. They had the guitar/keyboard/drums core but they also brought a lot of ancient and non-western instruments into their sound. Oud, shakuhachi, zampoña and accordion specifically get listed in the credits for Crash My Moon Yacht, and their otherness is certainly felt in a pronounced way here. "Elle Besh" for instance floats along for the bulk of its 13 minute runtime on a minimal, almost guitarless bed of odd instruments before exploding in its last minute with an insistent brass pulse and eastern guitar figure that. It's also a great showcase fro the dual drummers, as tarpigh's Eric LaPerna lays on some hand drums over Rogers' normal timekeeping giving the rather placid track a bit more of a busy feel. Really, each of the first six tracks acts as a pretty damn good summation of the powers of this lineup; Shoal bring the sense of dynamics and structure while tarpigh bring hte interestng instruments and the extra layers that elevate the material. I mean, would "Breathing Machines" sound anywhere near as majestic when it finally explodes without the extra players in the game? Would "Long Winded" be anywhere near as beautiful if not for the light eastern touches? It's a great stretch of avant-folk with post-rock touches is what I'm saying, and neither band could have accomplished it on their own.
I left out the lst two tracks from that description because really, they sound like the sort of thing that Cerberus Shoal's next incarnation could be just as responsible for as the one used for the rest of the album. I can't find specific lineup information for this one, but I know that Colleen Kinsella and company joined up with the group at the tail end of the tarpigh era, and "Asphodel" sounds like it might even feature her on banjo and vocals. They're also the only two vocal tracks on the album, which makes them seem like a separate piece from the preceding six tracks more so than the lack of easily discernible tarpigh touches. At any rate, the last pair of tracks are two of the most beautiful pieces that Shoal have ever put to tape."Asphodel" might be the one Cerberus Shoal track that could bring me to tears in the right circumstances, the lightly plucked guitars intertwining around a touching call-and-response between Mulkerin and an operatic female vocalist (not gonna say for sure that it's Kinsella) just hits that sweet spot for me. That's not to say that "Yes Sir No Sir" is a slouch at all, a bit overlong, but worth it to get to that glorious trumpet fanfare converging with Mulkerin and Sutherland's vocals. They may not fit with the previous six cuts but they're probably the best tracks on the album...well other than "Breathing Machines" at least.
Coming up later today: An Elephant 6-styled protest album that no one else sees as such.