[29 January 2014]
Pastoral yet churning, soft but insistent, yearning but stoic, this indie-rock band from suburban New Jersey offers its retrospective after three decades. The ever-changing line-up, as one member in the interactive liner notes accompanying this limited-edition double-CD release recalls, resembles a sprawling Pete Frame musical pedigree. Its intricacy defies summary here, but guitarist Marc Francia tells it well, along with his present and past colleagues. Among them were the drummer from the Feelies, Stan Demeski, and bassist Brenda Sauter. Speed the Plough grew organically out of that same Haledon, New Jersey, setting, and the mid-‘80s scene that spawned Yo La Tengo, at Maxwell’s in Hoboken, and at WFMU-FM.
The genial ambiance gleaned from eclectic influences which Yo La Tengo and the Feelies mastered fits this neighboring Jersey collective. Two albums appeared, with febrile dynamics, produced by Feelies guitarist Bill Million. Its self-titled 1989 debut and 1991’s Wonder Wheel captured Speed the Plough’s firm hold on gentle propulsion. Nine out of the 17 tracks on disc one come from these two long-players.
Highlights include the Eastern-European flavored “Vészprem”, “Tommy’s House”, “Big Bus”, “The Tide Won’t Tire”, and “Cutting Branches for a Temporary Shelter”. Those song titles, some of the 75 written by keyboardist John Baumgartner, combine the exotic or reverential with the everyday, and so do their contents. Speed the Plough mixes Yo La Tengo’s faraway feeling of summer daydreams with the edgier lyrics and more somber mien of the Feelies, pitched for first Brenda Sauter’s vocals, and, for the entirety of Speed the Plough’s career, Toni Paruta Baumgartner’s woodwinds and voice.
While the Don Sternecker-produced successors, recorded at the Feelies’ home studio, may not have earned as wide a distribution, as jangly college rock later that decade began to be drowned out, the diffuse Mason’s Box (1993) and the song-cycle Marina (1995) display their own modest appeal. The Baumgartners both sing, and their unassuming delivery may prove the one acquired taste for listeners otherwise eager to let these flowing, free-associative, and lilting tunes carry them along. Still, this homespun vocal quality arguably adds to the family atmosphere these records convey well.
That family expanded, and the core trio added their children to the roster. Ian and Dan Francia as the rhythm section and Mike Baumgartner (with “Cousin” Ed Seifert) on guitar start off some of the second disc. After a couple of decades off for parenthood, the latest version of Speed the Plough revved its engines with two records in 2010 and 2011. (Their band bio updates this to say that while Ian and Dan have since flown the coop, John Demeski joins, to keep it in the family, along with “talented and charming” bassist Cindi Merklee.) A bonus EP, Tag Sale, introduces among six strong songs the latest from now two Baumgartner composers. “Regrets (I’ve Had a Few)” is a great title, by the way.
Five tracks from a WFMU live session in 1993 encourage the band towards a looser sound away from the studio. (This laid-back but energetic mood enters into the song filmed too on disc two, but my promotional copy may have lacked full video inclusion. I had to obtain the advertised download link for the interactive booklet from the publicist, as it was not in the physical CD or the files provided. The Bar/None release, in a variety of LP, MP3 and CD formats, therefore, may differ slightly from the preview copy I am reviewing here.) The percussion thickens, and the bass particularly improves with a more resonant, rattling rumble. “Centerville” with its pricklier, wobblier undertow works well in this ambiance, while a well-chosen cover of Young Marble Giants’ “Final Day” matches the wistful with the critical.
Appropriately, Speed the Plough covers Robert Wyatt’s “The British Road” along with Bob Dylan’s “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” and their original songs on ten downloads, live versions from Maxwell’s, radio sessions, the Knitting Factory, and NPR’s Mountain Stage as sonic evidence (as on “Lock and Key”) of a louder, more brittle band than some of their studio legacy from the ‘90s perpetuated. These less buttoned-down recordings demonstrate, as with Hoboken’s neighboring bands, that whether amplified or acoustic, the intelligent selection of solid songs outlasts line-ups, producers, growing up, or parenthood in creating smart music for years to come.