Friday, November 21, 2014
Speed the Plough's "The Plough and the Stars": Music Review
The genial ambiance gleaned from eclectic influences which YLT 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 STP's firm hold on gentle propulsion. Nine out of the seventeen 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. STP mixes YLT's faraway feeling of summer daydreams with the edgier lyrics and more somber mien of The Feelies, pitched for first Brenda Sauter's voice, and, for the entirety of STP's career, Toni Paruta Baumgartner's woodwinds and vocals.
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 adds their children to the current 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 STP revved its engines with two records in 2010 and 2011. (Their band bio updates this to say that while Ian and Dan since have 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 vinyl, 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, STP 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. (PopMatters 1-29-14 + Amazon US)