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Full Steam Ahead

A literary posse: Jeff Mueller, Jason Noble and Kyle Crabtree (from front) of Shipping News.

A couple of telling facts about Shipping News:

Fact one: The band -- whose approach to what we still persist in calling "rock music" is at once notably intellectual and appealingly emotional -- is named for one of the most stunningly written novels of the past decade, 1993's The Shipping News, for which author E. Annie Proulx earned a Pulitzer Prize.

Fact two: The group's leader, guitarist/ vocalist Jeff Mueller, didn't read the book until about six months ago, over four years after the handle was chosen.

How on earth did that happen? The extremely personable Mueller explains that back in 1996, when the act had not yet settled on a moniker, his musical partner, bassist/vocalist Jason Noble, was knee-deep in the tome. "Jason was like, 'Wow, "Shipping News" is kind of an interesting name,' and since the names we'd been coming up with had been really ridiculous, 'Shipping News' rose to the surface." He adds, "I hadn't read The Shipping News, but I'd read Accordion Crimes, which is another Annie book, and I'd liked it. So I figured, 'Oh, I'm sure The Shipping News is good; let's just take the name. Fuck it.'"

This decision might have proven unfortunate had Mueller loathed Proulx's tragicomic tale, which revolves around a heartsick newspaperman named Quoyle who settles in a remote part of Newfoundland with his two young daughters following the death of his serially unfaithful wife. Fortunately, though, everything worked out. "It's dark, a challenging read -- a pretty bleak book. But I always kind of arrive back at it. When I'm reading other books these days, I'll be like, 'This is pretty good. When was the last time I read a book this good? Oh, The Shipping News.'"

The group came together as casually as did its moniker. Mueller and Noble had once played together as part of the pioneering noise outfit Rodan, and they stayed in touch even after the band fractured. Then, in 1996, Mueller was asked to contribute some incidental music to a report about schizophrenia that was slated to run on This American Life, a National Public Radio program that he refers to admiringly as "60 Minutes for mutants." He subsequently asked Noble to collaborate with him, and after spending three days together in their hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, recording assorted snippets, "We realized how excited we were just to be playing music with each other again. So we put together another period of time when we could record and write songs and play music, and that's what went on to become Shipping News.

"The best part of playing with Jason is the freshness part of it," he continues. "I love being able to go into a room with two people like Jason and Kyle (Crabtree, the drummer) and collaborate on such an open and honest level, without any apprehensions. Just to feel completely comfortable, in my opinion, makes this an incredible success. Not to mention all the other great things -- like just being able to play a show, for Christ's sake. You know, to drive to a place like, say, Atlanta, Georgia, and have some people come and see us play. It's crazy to me that we're able to do that, because the beginning of our band wasn't really thought out at all. It was just, 'Let's play some music and see what happens.'"

As these comments imply, Shipping News didn't initially occupy the top spot on Mueller's priority list. When it was founded, he was also a member of June of 44, an angular quartet made up of players with impeccable underground-rock pedigrees: Mueller's cohorts had spent time in Codeine, Hoover and Sonora Pine. As a result, the press branded June of 44 an indie supergroup -- a designation that simultaneously amused and annoyed Mueller, as he made clear in these pages ("Blind Faith Redux," November 14, 1996). Today, Mueller says such references played no part in June's dissolution, which took place just over a year ago because of what he says were creative differences; his new attitude regarding such matters adds credence to his claims. After all, the collective resumé of the Shipping News threesome is sparkling, too: In addition to his role in Rodan, Noble has played with the esoteric cult combo Rachel's, and Crabtree was once in Metroschifter and Eleven Eleven. But Mueller no longer bristles at allusions to their musical pasts. "I realize these things give people a vantage point," he notes. "And in any case, it only helps bring people out, which helps all of us."

Most of those who've gotten a chance to spin Very Soon, and in Pleasant Company, Shipping News's latest disc on Quarterstick Records, have liked what they heard. But positive reactions haven't been universal. Like novelist Proulx's prose, the album's lyrics are fragmentary, imagistic and resonant -- e.g., "We are facing something/Leaving/In the media of the senses/She can feel distant stars collapse," from "How to Draw Horses." As an added bonus, the words are reproduced on the CD's liner. In the past, Mueller hasn't been much interested in setting down his couplets on the printed page, but he changed his mind after numerous requests from fans and because "Jason and I put a lot more effort into writing the lyrics that go with the music. We wanted people to be able to follow what we were saying."

Mueller and Noble can do so more easily because of another change: fewer sonic shifts in dynamics. On the outfit's impressive debut, 1997's Save Everything, tracks such as "Books on Trains," "Steerage" and the slow-building "A True Lover's Knot" place Noble and Crabtree at the forefront of the mix, so that even at leisurely moments, there's a threat of musical explosion. But on Pleasant Company, the band's heavier instincts emerge, mainly in "The March Song" and "Nine Bodies, Nine States," the oldest compositions that made the final cut, as well as in the winkingly titled "Quiet Victories," which juxtaposes hushed passages with a couple instances of "Cortez the Killer" guitar skronk. In contrast, "Actual Blood," "Simple Halo" and the gorgeous "Contents of a Landfill," which also features violist Christian Frederickson and vibes-player Edward Grimes, are delicate, moody and a bit amorphous, moving deliberately toward their destinations rather than dashing there in a headlong fashion. This pace has frustrated some reviewers -- especially scribes with a jones for immediate gratification. However, those in less of a rush will have their patience rewarded via rich atmospherics that not only stand up to multiple listens, but actually encourage them.

According to Mueller, the tenor of the tunes written most recently has a lot to do with environmental circumstances. "For the past three years, I've lived in houses where I can't be loud. When I left Chicago in July of 1998 and moved to Philadelphia, I had to be incredibly quiet, and then when I came back to Chicago in July of 2000, the house I moved into was super-quiet as well. So I've become Mr. Acoustic Man, with everything turned down to .5 on my amplifier.

"But that's not the only reason this happened," he goes on. "I think that over the four years between our first record and our second record, each of us has spent a lot of time in quiet spaces or recording music by ourselves -- developing certain techniques about how to get ideas and personal moments across. And that's led to some really creative things. In the studio, we might go: 'I can rub my sweater on the guitar and make some scraping sounds, or maybe drag some buckets across the floor.' Whatever it takes to make something work. And recording the quieter songs became like an exercise in restraint. We would try to see who could be the quietest, as opposed to constantly turning it up. It was like, 'I can be quieter than you.'"

Recreating numbers like these on stage can be something of a challenge, as Mueller discovered during a tour of Europe completed earlier this year: "When you're playing a song that means a lot to you and you're hearing people in the background throwing bottles around or chatting or having a good time, it can be a little disconcerting. Because, you know, it's strange to be up in front of people anyway when you're singing these incredibly intimate words and singing these incredibly intimate songs and trying to connect with them when you're hearing constant chatter in the background. But it's great, too, because it makes me feel like part of everything else that's going on, and not just like the guy putting on a show.

"I'm a sucker for the stronger stuff, too," he concedes. "I'll listen to a record and think, 'This really rocks. I'm in it. I'm with these people.' And I know some people can't get into anything else -- so I can completely understand why somebody like that might shy away from what we're doing now. But, you know, quieter records that may require more attention, at least at first, can be really beautiful things."

There's no guarantee that the film adaptation of The Shipping News, currently shooting in Newfoundland under the direction of Lasse Hallström, who most recently helmed the sweet but nutrition-free Chocolat, will rate similarly glowing adjectives. In the novel, protagonist Quoyle is described as a huge, misshapen hulk with an unnaturally large chin that he self-consciously covers whenever he's feeling insecure (which is almost all of the time), but in the flick he'll be played by smallish Academy Award-winner Kevin Spacey, with Julianne Moore as his supposedly plain-faced love interest and Cate Blanchett as his wife. But Mueller is still hopeful -- hopeful enough, anyway, to stick with the Shipping News appellation a while longer.

"We were threatening to change it," he says. "We were 95 percent sure that we were going to do it. But one morning I woke up and called Jason and Kyle and went, 'You know what? Shipping News is a good band name.' And now there's the movie, which could be a good thing. Like if we tour right when it's coming out, and everywhere you'll see posters going, 'Shipping News! Shipping News! Shipping News!'

"The only drawback is if people show up expecting Kevin Spacey."