By Stephen Hiscock
With more personnel changes than Fleetwood Mac (the roll call of members reads like the cast list from Ben Hur), New Jersey’s finest, Speed The Plough, are back with this massive retrospective album The Plough and The Stars. Seventeen songs from their first four albums (released between 1989 and 1995), stand next to six new songs and five live tracks from a radio session with New Jersey station WFMU in 1993.
Husband and wife John and Toni Baumgartner have been the nucleus of the band all the way through its thirty year existence (with a fourteen year child-raising break). When they reconvened in 2009 their son Mike joined them on guitar. Ian and Dan Francia, sons of other founder member Marc took the bass and drums and, in the past year, John Demeski (son of original drummer Stanley) has also joined. The sound is loving, welcoming, honest and devoid of cynicism, like the best families and the best bands.
The arrangements are bold and beautiful. Without being a synesthete you can HEAR the colours – big primary splashes from a child’s paintbox arranged with an adult’s eyes, ears and hands. There is no artifice on this album. The sound is as clear as if they played in front of you in a small club. No bombast or grandstanding – just quiet strength and simplicity from the melodies and chords dressed in pretty clothes by the arrangements. Many of the songs have long settling intros before the vocals appear – like making a bed comfortable before you lie on it.
Highlights include ‘Late Birds’ which starts with a Ravel-esque flute solo, recorded touchingly close with the sound of the breaths bleeding into the notes. The Mediterranean swirl of ‘Veszprem’ recalls the original southern Italian tarantella – the whirling dance to rid the bitten body of the tarantula’s poison – both in its circular rhythm and yearning accordion. (I wish this song were longer!) ‘Trains’ is the best example of the sweet vocal harmonies that creep through this album like ivy. It ends in a long musical smear with barely perceptible train whistles. ‘Said and Done’ has an incongruous mix of fuzz guitar and flute plus a rhythm track that hammers at a nail until the false ending and organ coda break things up. ‘The British Road’ and ‘Napoleon’ are ‘Live’ stand outs. The former (a Robert Wyatt cover) improves the original by simplifying the song and leaving out the ’80’s clanking and clunking. The latter is simply fragile and beautiful (“Sun behind your eyes is like a promise broken open”).
‘Napoleon’ has little echoes of Mike Mill’s piano work for REM (or the other way around) and there’s an eclectic mix of tiny reminders of other artists dotted throughout the album – Billy Bragg on ‘Aeroplane,’ The Stranglers on ‘Hemlock Tree,’ Antonio Carlos Jobim on ‘The Roof is Off’ and The Velvet Underground on ‘Final Day.’ It speaks of a generous spirit and an openness to the world around the band rather than a magpie-like pilfering.
So, as all retrospectives of great long-lived bands should be, this is a thorough and rich album. At the finish you feel sadness that your new friends have left. This isn’t one of those career collections that drone on like being trapped with a garrulous hypochondriac on a long haul flight. At the end of the live version of ‘Everyday Needs’ one of the band mumbles an apology about their performance of the song. A woman in the audience disagrees, shouting “make it LONGER!” I’m with her.
The Plough and The Stars is released by Bar-None