Speed's the Name rock it 'til the wheels fall off
The crowd is restless on a Wednesday night at the Uptown Bar & Café. It's not usually a pay-a-cover-on-a-weekday kind of place, but this particular night former Television guitarist Richard Lloyd is playing, necessitating a door charge worth two and a half beers. A few regulars bristle at the entry fee, while Lloyd devotees smoke and drink on the patio, waiting.
Pretty much nobody is paying attention when openers Speed's the Name take the dark, deep-set stage in the back of the room and break into "Over and Over," the opening track from their latest album, Swell. One by one, drinkers peel themselves away from the bar, and passersby drifting in from the patio get tangled up in the overlapping guitar riffs and thickets of drum fills. A crowd congeals around the stage. By the time the band rolls out "Guadalajara," the new disc's most mixtape-ready track, reformed skeptics bar-wide are propelled into motion by the haunting surf-guitar moans, which echo through filters of acid rock.
"This rhythm section is great!" an aging hipster in a preposterous hat exclaims to his buddy. "These guys aren't local."
But Speed's the Name are local, and that's not even their regular rhythm section onstage. Bassist Scotty McVeigh is joined for this performance by the band's soundman and producer Jeff Marcovis, who's filling in for drummer Andrew Thornbrough while he jaunts around Puerto Rico. The hipster in the questionable chapeau is right about one thing, though: Speed's the Name do indeed rock.
This weekend the band will release Swell, their second album, when they headline a show at the Hexagon Bar. It's a hell of a record—energetic, elegantly produced, and reminiscent of groups like the Cars and the aforementioned Television, who pushed the evolution of '70s guitar rock without giving way to Reagan-era synth-pop. And, according to everyone in the band, it's the record they always wanted to write.
Singer and lyricist Ryan McNally formed the first incarnation of Speed's the Name in 2006, but there was an obvious flaw: "It was me and a drummer, and all I do is sing, so we pretty much had to bring other people in," McNally says.
McNally initially intended to make dance music. He wrote and recorded an entire album's worth of songs, then scrapped them and started from scratch with a different rhythm section. By this time he was joined by guitarists Andy Bembridge and Peter Remiger, plus rhythm section number two. In just a few short months they wrote and recorded a second batch of songs, which would become 2007's self-titled EP. But all three core band members quickly grew disenchanted with the record. Eventually some of the backing tracks were junked, leaving the disc raw and infused with low-fi energy. Guitarist Bembridge refers to the EP as their "party album" and says he prefers to listen to it in the car so he can roll down the window, letting the ambient noise outside fill in for the missing layers of sound. "It wasn't thought out enough," says McNally.
Apparently, the third rhythm section is the charm. Not long after the self-titled EP was assembled, McNally, who works as a sound engineer at McNally Smith (no relation), was blown away by performance major Thornbrough. The young drummer was so good that McNally knew he had to snatch him up immediately—it's a particular perk of his job, he adds, getting to see all the new talent. McNally then brought in McVeigh, and although the bassist had never previously met his 22-year-old drummer counterpart, the two struck up an instant rapport.
"They're in love now," McNally cracks, to which Bembridge adds, "They're just gazing into each other's eyes onstage."
The boys also got a helping Vampire Hand from Colin Johnson, who plays additional percussion on the album and lent his input to the recording process. Johnson initially planned to produce the disc as well, but his duties in Vampire Hands kept him from full-time participation. "It's more like he was a member of the band for two days," Remiger explains.
The influence of the two newest members of the band resounds not just in the performance of the tunes, but in the songs' very construction. The tracks on Swell are more open and intricately arranged, with carefully timed pauses and lulls that accentuate frenzied bursts of percussion and electric guitar. And while that allows for a greater range of emotion from track to track, the album is more cohesive than their last effort. A guitar line from a previous song might echo in another one minutes later, or a riff might briefly emerge on the soundscape like a ghostly prediction, only to vanish before dominating two tracks later. (The effect is reminiscent of Wilco's magnificent Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, but with a completely different sonic agenda.)
"We were trying to write this way," McNally says, "and it took the new guys to let that flourish."
SPEED'S THE NAME will play a CD-release show with Ice Palace, Zombie Season, and DJ Peppermint Coffins on SATURDAY, MAY 30, at the HEXAGON BAR; 612.722.3454
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