Speed the Plough is one of New Jersey’s longest-running indie-rock bands, and its new album, Now, continues the tradition proudly, filled with songs that are often dark and searching, but also tuneful and imaginatively arranged. Vocals are rough-edged and human-sounding, not sweet and polished, and there’s usually a bit of mystery to the lyrics. This is music made by adults, for adults.
John Baumgartner has been the main songwriter throughout the band’s more-than-30-year history. But Now features more contributions from other songwriters in the band than ever before. Baumgartner, who plays keyboards, sings and co-fronts the band with his wife, Toni Baumgartner (who sings and plays flute and saxophone), attributes the harder-edged rock sound on parts of the album to the songwriting efforts of their son Michael, who is one of the band’s guitarists.
“I think we’re probably mostly thought of as more of a chamber-pop group or something, because we have the woodwinds and keyboards and stuff like that,” says John Baumgartner. “But I’ve really always loved playing rock ‘n’ roll.”
He says he worried, at one point, that because several different songwriters were involved, Now “was going to be a little too diverse, and perhaps schizophrenic or something. But we’ve been playing this stuff live for at least the last year, and it’s part of what we do, and I felt very comfortable with it, after a while. We can rock. There’s nothing wrong with that.”
Speed the Plough — which performs at Rent Party in Maplewood, Dec. 11 — is part of the same Northern New Jersey music scene that has produced bands such as The Feelies, The Trypes and Yung Wu. Many musicians, in fact, have played in more than one of these bands at the same time, or at different times. Joining the three Baumgartners in the band’s current lineup are guitarist-singer Ed Seifert, bassist Cindi Merklee and drummer John Demeski (son of former Speed the Plough and current Feelies drummer Stan Demeski).
Speed the Plough first became intergenerational about four years ago. It had been on hiatus, and John and Toni Baumgartner had been playing in Sunburst with original Speed the Plough guitarist Marc Francia, as well as Stan Demeski and Demeski’s Feelies bandmates Glenn Mercer and Dave Weckerman. But when The Feelies started to become more active and Sunburst ran its course, the Baumgartners were left without a creative outlet.
“Marc’s son Dan, who is a bass player, came around and just basically said, ‘What are you guys doing? You have all this material. How come you’re not playing?’,” says John Baumgartner. He recognized that Dan had a point, and so Speed the Plough was relaunched. Dan and his brother Ian, a drummer, joined together, along with Michael Baumgartner. In 2013, Dan and Ian Francia left to focus on other musical projects, and were replaced by Merklee and John Demeski,
Now is being released on the Coyote label, which was co-founded by Maxwell’s owner Steve Fallon in 1982, and put out albums by groups such as The Feelies, Yo La Tengo and Speed the Plough over the next decade or so. Now is the label’s first release in a long time.
“I don’t want to sound too hokey,” says John Baumgartner. “But it is like coming home, in a way.”
Speed the Plough performs with Edward Rogers and the Carpenter Ants at Rent Party in Maplewood, Dec. 11. Members of the Maplewood Police Department will be collecting toys at the show, for distribution to needy families; those donating a new, unwrapped toy will receive a free copy of Rent Party’s fifth anniversary CD collection.
Other upcoming Speed the Plough shows will take place at Cake Shop in Manhattan, Jan. 9, and Union Hall in Brooklyn, Jan. 30.