Untitled Document

Marina

Marina
SPEED THE PLOUGH

(written 2013)

A faint, off-microphone strike of the claves triggered a small musical revolution in the suburbs of New Jersey as the needle hit the groove on “The Boy With Perpetual Nervousness”, the opening track of The Feelies’ debut album, Crazy Rhythms, in 1980. It was a sonic event that ultimately spawned a whole neighborhood’s worth of world-class bands, all liberally sharing each other’s members, and, inevitably, each other’s aesthetic pursuits, each band exploring its own variations on The Feelies’ theme of combining Lou Reed’s fearsome noise rock with Brian Eno’s pastoral minimalism. In addition to four more Feelies albums (and counting), Dave Weckerman’s Yung Wu released one bucolic long-player in 1987; Brenda Sauter’s Wild Carnation have thus far made two records of high-precision pop (1994, 2006); Glenn Mercer’s Wake Ooloo made three noisy records in quick succession (1994,5,6), and Mercer himself released a comparably-minded solo record in 2007, while John Baumgartner’s reclusive Trypes released but one psychedelia-tinged 1984 EP, though in 2012 the band issued an exhaustive career retrospective.

It was this last band, The Trypes, that eventually evolved into Speed The Plough. This North Haledon-based band’s first three long-players (1989’s self-titled debut, 1991’s Wonderwheel, 1993’s Mason’s Box) found them still within reach of the latter-day Feelies’ formidable pull. Speed-strumming and frenetic drumming, along with sinister Velveteen drone guitar lines churning in the undertow, are still in evidence on occasion, though the tempos are typically slowed, the attack is subdued, the melodies and vocal arrangements are expanded, and the sound is augmented by a myriad of new influences, among them Eastern European and Balkan folk traditions, New York jazz club rhythms, and even some madrigal and medieval inflections in the vocal arrangements, all accompanied by a significantly broadened instrumental palette—piano, flute and recorder, and accordion, primarily, along with a smattering of country fiddle and banjo—that veer rather emphatically towards a heretofore unimagined and achingly beautiful suburban ethnic folk-rock mélange.

In 1995, the band’s fourth album arrived, called Marina. Like nothing else in the entire Feelies band-of-brothers-and-sisters catalogue (or any other catalogue, for that matter), Marina fairly glows with a shimmering delicacy, an intimate warmth, a transcendent spirituality, and a familial love (STP mainstays John Baumgartner and Toni Paruta married years before, and their love radiates around every corner of the sonic landscape; Brenda Sauter, Marc Francia, Chris O'Donovan, Rich Barnes, and Michael Lipton round out the family). Gentle acoustic guitar and delicate piano dance and sing around the maypole, while a cloud cover of rumbling fuzz guitar or electric organ might still, on occasion, threaten a storm. Female-male vocal lines (featuring Baumgartner, Paruta, and Sauter)—sometimes in harmony, sometimes in counterpoint, but most magically, often in unison—sing of everyday matters of the human heart: finding the time to reach out to loved ones, regretting past mistakes, keeping and losing friends, contemplating our place in the natural world; concerns that are all the more resonant for their matter-of-fact simpleness. All the while, the moon travels across the sky, the scent of evergreens permeates the air, the blackberries ripen, while the rare particularity might yet punctuate songwriter Baumgartner’s water-colored impressions: the wind blows down Ashford Avenue, a boat sails the Danube on a winter’s day, the rain falls on Frenchmans Bay.

Amidst the pastoral acoustic splendor and emotional calm, Baumgartner’s gently soaring melodies swoon and ebb and flow like magic. The three/four accordion-brindled sway of "Hourglass" is beguiling; “Late Birds” begins with a touch of Erik Satie flute, then unexpectedly veers towards speed-beat territory, as voices join in glorious unison in the chorus; the medieval lilt on the verses of “Written Each Day” is ineffably haunting; the plainspoken and delicate beauty of “Bayswater Lane” is a musical highlight not only of Marina, but for all the ages; a tour de force of calm, contemplative loveliness.

There is nothing mannered here, nothing pretentious, not a misplaced note nor an overwrought lyric; with thirteen tracks in just under an hour, Marina is a long album that sustains its remarkable pleasures to the very end.

After a protracted layoff from recording (John and Toni raised a family and paid the bills, though still found time to make music with old friends in Sunburst, with only a few songs trickling out over the years), Speed The Plough reformed in 2009 with an infusion of new blood, specifically, Ed Seifert on guitar, John and Toni’s son Mike also on guitar, and Marc Francia’s two sons, Ian and Dan, fleshing out the rhythm section, making STP, more than ever, a family affair. This new version of the band has thus far released two wonderful records (Swerve in 2010, Shine in 2011), both of a more rockist bent than previous.

Untitled Document