During the Feelies’ long hiatus, some of the fine bands that arose from their New Jersey strumming circle kept going strong, upholding some version of the same dedication to glimmering guitar-pop beauty. Speed the Plough began as the Trypes, a little-known but continuing band at one point joined by three Feelies (Glenn Mercer, Stan Demeski and Bill Million) with time on their hands. Together with John Baumgartner (keyboards), Marc Francia (guitar), Toni Paruta (woodwinds) and Brenda Sauter (bass), they made The Explorers Hold, a placid and introspective 1984 EP. When the Feelies left (taking Sauter with them) to reactivate their band, the remaining three recruited new members and became Speed the Plough.
With Paruta and songwriter Baumgartner mixing it up on not-quite-there lead vocals, the eponymous debut is rough around the handsome, rustic edges; although clearly Feelies- influenced (thanks especially to Jim DeRogatis’ prim and precise drumming), Speed the Plough is gently colored by acoustic instrumentation rather than driving guitar — more bucolic than neurotic. The album was helpfully remixed for its 1992 reissue, with “Fathers and Sons,” an outtake from the original sessions, added.
Recorded by a lineup that resembles the Trypes (Sauter and Demeski are the moonlighting rhythm section), Wonder Wheel takes STP to a new level. Sounding like a homey group of folks who probably subscribe to the Utne Reader and tie up their recycling bundles just right, the sextet illuminates tuneful pop songs like “The Tide Won’t Tire” and the downbeat “Final Day” with gorgeous vocal harmonies and intricate tapestries of flute, piano, light drumming, bass, banjo and guitar. The skittering “Hemlock Tree” and medieval-styled “Story of the Moon” suggest vintage Jethro Tull transplanted to Haledon, New Jersey; more often, however, Speed the Plough retains its original grip, exploring the gap between indie rock and modern folk to good effect. Since the creative focus is so clearly elsewhere, it’s surprising how often the band still hitches its wagon to a patented Feelies speed-beat, but it actually adds to the cheery mood.
Baumgartner acquires a nasty habit of repetition on Mason’s Box; songs that don’t have much to say do so ad infinitum. It’s not a big problem, though. With nine players credited on the usual assortment of instruments, the album touches on rollicking folk and, in “Morro Bay” and Sauter’s showcase, “Follow Your Vision,” more Feeliesque pop. The real sign of progress is rearward, in delightful explorations of idyllic ’60s folk-rock. “Deepest Brown” and “Oh, the Paradise” sound like something Paul Simon might have produced for a young tie-dye band around 1966, while “The Roof Is Off (The Stars Are There and It’s Mighty Cold)” makes good use of “Girl from Ipanema” elements in a fluted confection that could be by Renaissance — if not from the Renaissance.
More eclectic than any previous STP record (noise guitar, tabla-punctuated psychedelia, light jazz-pop, boulevard accordion and an Erik Satie flute piece!), Marina is the group’s modest masterpiece. Crafted with splendid instrumental delicacy and personal and friendly in a close, familial way, the record exudes warmth and sensitivity in creations of nearly spiritual gentleness. When the singers join voices in “Said & Done” to exult that “I reach out for your hand and I am really not alone,” it’s impossible not to share their joy. The gorgeous “Bayswater Lane” sets a snow-on-the-evergreens mood potent enough to induce sensual delirium. Flawed vocals remain Speed the Plough’s one weakness, but music this engaging doesn’t demand exactitude so much as expressiveness, and Marina positively glows with credible emotions.
Sauter gives the Feelies’ racing concision a generous dose of folky ventilation in Wild Carnation, her trio with STP bandmates Richard Barnes (guitar) and Christopher O’Donovan (drums). Singing her wistful, nostalgic reminiscences in a low, pleasing voice that sometimes wanders away, Sauter opens Tricycle by proving she can do the buzzing fever-pitch pop-rock thing in “The Rising Tide.” Most of the album, however, eases up on the tension and the density (while retaining the brisk tempos), allowing acoustic guitar strums and spare drumming to set the emotional tone, mirrored in rustic songs like “Shaker Tune” and “The Music Box.” Elsewhere, Barnes’ distortion leads and pretty jangle figures add bite. Sauter addresses her lyrical interests — the relocation of Brooklyn’s baseball team, trains, airplanes, the environment and people — in straightforward terms, investing more solemnity in the words than the music.
Wild Carnation’s second album, Superbus, is an excellent refinement of the band’s strengths. With the addition of keyboard player Anne Hopkins, the band explores various digressions from its essential core of low-key rock. Sauter and company make a bit like the Cocteau Twins, the Feelies (natch), even ’60s folk-rockers like the Mamas and the Papas, managing various tempos, intensity and timbre into consistently handsome delicacy. Finely restrained playing and the co-production (with the band) by ex-Bongo James Mastro makes one think of words like “filigreed,” but that might be too pretentious for such a down-to-earth record, whose concerns are the weather, the sky, nature, driving and — in the dead catchy “Slingshot ‘Round the Sun” — space travel.