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Craft Abounds – Speed The Plough’s “The Plough & The Stars” Retrospective

Speed The Plough
The Plough & The Stars

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There’s always been something of the kaleidoscope to the Feelies, a whirling color carousel of sounds combined with a Ferris wheel of swooping rhythms, the music chasing kinetic, intricately shifting circles in the air. They went quite often at a mild breakneck and the inevitable listening experience of breathless smiles and delight was vaguely tinged by a hinted-at danger of tripping and not just over one’s feet. This dalliance with the sly, insistent, dodgeball beat continued through post-Feelies outfit the Trypes (so close to the Trips) and, to a subtler extent, finds a foothold in the earthier constructs of Speed The Plough. Whether in the easy-going hurtle of the gypsy-laced “Vezprém,” the clicked drumstick break midway through “Tommy’s House”, the duetting duel of guitars that fills the middle of “The Tide Won’t Tire” or, especially, the lengthy, smile-bringing, banjo-accompanied double-tracked guitar outro on “Lock And Key,” that scooting, effervescent energy that defines the crazy rhythm boys is sprinkled liberally over this about-time retrospective.

Which isn’t to limit this fine band’s sense of critical worth to the Mercer/Million involvement – STP are far too stylistically expansive for that – but only to underline both the through-line of influence their modest little band exerts without, it would seem, even trying, and the shared textural sympathies that exist between the two outfits. You don’t have to know how to spell ‘RIYL’ to recognize the sonic link.

Formed in 1984 in the wake of the Trypes’ demise by John and Toni Baumgartner and Marc Francia, the band has survived over hill and dale and a lengthy hiatus, acquiring and spinning off countless band members orbiting that original trio, including the relatively brief stints by Million and Mercer and, in recent years, various band offspring. From every angle a dizzying and tangled bio, at the center of it, of course, stands the music itself.

Gentle yet challenging, rooted only passingly in the Scottish folk genesis of their name (picked almost blindfold from a book of sheet music days before their first gig at, where else, Maxwell’s), Speed The Plough highwire it between the more sublime regions of college rock (“Said And Done”), East Coast folk-shadowed singer-songwriter fare (“Big Bus”), acoustic psych a la Incredible String Band (“A Saint Restored”), and immaculate, jangleless C-86 style bedsit excursions (“Aeroplane”) that prefigure Belle & Sebastian and here we are full circle back in Scotland. As to be expected, all these hybridized elements overlap song for song until, by record’s end, we’ve become enwrapped in a quilt of interlocking precursors artfully distilled.

Craft abounds, in other words, there’s command and confidence in their every traipse. The piano-bedizened “Written Each Day” swirls little prog pearls about without effort, “In The Atmosphere,” which weaves a New Jersey coffee shop strum with English folk harmonies with an almost Laurel Canyon vibe then tops it off with one of those sinuous electric guitar lines already mentioned, rhymes ‘sloughing mood’ with ‘solitude’ and voila!, just another peerless example of seamless genre-blending from Speed The Plough, while “The Roof Is Off (The Stars Are There and It’s Mighty Cold)” presents the drifting escape of a Toni’s Traffic-y flute before flipping – again without perceivable join – into an Ipanema-ish burble of the first water, the lightly buoyant trade and harmony of tropicalian vocals, impeccably sunny percussion – including, naturally, the indelible plonk of vibes – the flute eventually returning like some flitsome Brazilian shorebird.

As if to underline the unique assemblage aspect of this enduring collective, stalwart Hoboken label Bar/None has taken the unusual step of issuing the retrospective as a double CD/LP hybrid, with a download card included that grants access to not only the record’s musical content but as well ten additional live songs and an interactive version of the booklet. Not an extra but part and parcel, the vinyl sides bring us Tag Sale – six brand new studio tracks, among which are writing contributions from John’s son Mike Baumgartner – and a five-song live appearance on WFMU from 1993. Though admittedly too late to the pages of CITC for any stocking stuffer considerations, at least now you have an idea of what to do with that check you got from Uncle Howard. Happy New Year.