Written by: Dave Cantrell
Like a dish indulged in innumerable times over the years that still manages to surprise the palate with subtle complexities and the frequent reappearance of heat and spice that its familiarity has maybe blinded you to, the arrival of a new Speed The Plough album is both comforting and pleasingly disarming.
From New Jersey and formed by John and Toni Baumgartner in 1984 out of the Trypes – the band the Feelies took refuge in for a time – Speed The Plough, um, plow a furrow between the East Coast coffeehouse folk their name might understandably suggest and the heartfelt, intelligent, often acoustic-based strain of college indie rock into which they were born (and thus how appropriate is it that Now is the first release on Maxwell’s founder Steve Fallon’s long-dormant, now reborn Coyote Records). Aside from being what one might consider the top candidate as the Garden State’s busiest musician aggregator, including in their ranks during their run an ever-shifting dream team of players and writers (Wild Carnation founder Chris O’Donovan, John Neilson from the Wharton Tiers band, former Feelies/Trypes Stanley Demeski and Brenda Sauter, Sauter’s husband Rich Barnes, Jim DeRogatis and longtime DJ Frank O’Toole among others), STP has also proven to be a pretty fertile breeding ground. Original member Marc Francia’s sons Ian and Dan were on hand for the band’s 2009 relaunch while Demeski’s son sits now where his father sat behind the drums twenty-five years ago and the Baumgartners’ son Mike plays guitar and brings his own songwriting skills, all of which leaves little doubt that this group has one of the most rewardingly convoluted backstories rock’s back pages have to offer. It isn’t, however, some random dynastic impulse that explains the band’s longetivity, but rather the lure and enduring strength of the work that pulls them forward. As an impetus no doubt the legacy helps, but, one feels, it’s the music more than bloodline or tradition that animates this seemingly immortal outfit.
One of – at least – a couple hallmarks of Speed The Plough’s success over the years might well be the sense of creative inclusion. Writing-wise, band paterfamilias John wrote seven of the twelve tracks on Now, there are three from son Mike and one each from newcomer (2013) bassist Cindi Merklee (the humility-held-aloft, sad and ballady “Miss Amelia [for Carson McCullers]”) and new-ish-comer (2011) guitarist Ed Seifert, who proffers the idyllic, Poco-flavored yearner “Be With You.” From this equanimity emerges a second factor in the Plough’s continued vitality: a diversity of songcraft. Any time you bring six talented, empathic multi-instrumentalists together, all devoted to the service of the song (the most essential piece, of course) you’re likely going to get a varied tracklisting solidly built, and that’s the case here as they wander from the pining romantic thank you card “S.O.S.” that opens the record – lovely piano foundation flashed by a guitar outbreak that’s searing, soaring, and poignant – to the short rush of “Ed’s Song” that ends it in a marvelous Mascis/Minutemen blur.
That last is one of the three penned by the younger Baumgartner which, when paired with “Garden” that triangulates Crazy Horse, the Replacements, and a mystic slasher flick (trust me), might give the impression that it’s Michael that’s responsible for the rock around this joint until you come across his “Hey, Blue,” a near-wispy, pastoral love song (that nonetheless still allows itself a spot of guitar catharsis). And so it is with this band. Just when you think you’ve got them pegged they unpeg that assumption pronto.
“Because,” built of a circular piano pattern, garlanded by Toni’s djin-like flute, John and Toni’s vocals bandying back and forth, ratcheting up the tension, is a bit of a psycho-emotional rollercoaster ride, “Midnight in the World”‘s smooth electric piano vibe jibes with the light wah-wah guitar accents to create a sort of urban nocturne, albeit one edged in romantic despair, “On A New Day” more or less frolics with a jazzy optimism (Brian Auger even came to mind) while “Telegraph,” immediately following, goes straight for a squalling jugular, short, jerky, and frantically pushed to the brink, if one of the catchier brinks encountered this year.
But perhaps no track on Now better embodies this band’s devotion to the potential richness of a song’s possibilities as the innocently-named “Buttermilk Falls,” starting as a sort of piano-based roundelay with an Elizabethan minstrel feel as if Jan Akkerman is in the house that, in truth, is but a gauzy disguise for what becomes a gently appointed account of betrayal, its lilting hook buried like a hopeful burr inside the pain of suspected adultery. As with the album entire, the potentially competing strands of purpose are all tied together by an assurance of hand. Never ones to shy away from challenge, Now finds Speed The Plough still nimbly atop their game, their long history honored.