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"There's a whole lot going on with respect to, like, there's so much ethnic diversity," JC resident and Rye Coalition front man Ralph Cuseglio sputters out when asked to describe his hometown. "There's a lot of ghetto-ass parts to Jersey City. We all went to high school in Jersey City, and a few of us have gotten our share of ass kickings in Jersey City, getting jumped on the street and what have you. It's a tough place to grow up, I think, but you have to love it; it's where we're from," he says in his distinctively husky drawl.
In 1994, Jersey City was the epicenter where five friends -- Cuseglio, guitarists Herb Wiley V and Jon Gonnelli, bassist Justin Morey and drummer David Leto -- conceived Rye Coalition. Shortly afterward, the band released one of the most sought-after (now out of print on vinyl) records of the time, a split 12-inch with Washington state rockers KARP. The record contained two songs, "White Jesus of 114th Street" and "Romancing the Italian Horn," that made Rye an instant commodity amongst the indie-rock kids of the time. The tracks were cacophonous rockers that owed a debt to both math-rock and '70s heavy metal, unfurled with a sinister, frantic intensity.
In the ensuing years, Rye Coalition released two albums, Hee Saw Dhuh Kaet and The Lipstick Game, with variegated lineups. It's only now, some eight years after its inception, that the band has returned to its original five members, Jersey City's favorite sons, who wrote and recorded the band's latest Steve Albini-produced LP, On Top. The Rye Coalition sound has progressed considerably since the split 12-inch. At that time, the band hadn't quite found its swagger or perfected the alchemy that turns Led Zep and AC/DC-inspired metal trips into sweltering indie-rawk, but the essentials are the same. On Top is composed of cyclical dual guitar riffs, get-up-and-shout rhythms and hurled vocal barrages that deliver odes to hot mamas, sexy nuns, hard-luck lovers, and Jersey City itself.
The return to form, lineup-wise, was something of a lucky accident. The original Rye guys had scattered to chase various real-life pursuits -- from the beginning, Rye Coalition was always a part-time gig for them. Gonnelli was teaching math to kids, Morey was working at a savings and loan, and Wiley handled customer service at a dispatch company, while Leto was still in college and Cuseglio was doing time in grad school for social work. "That's kind of what we were all doing before we decided to drop everything in our lives and do this for a while," Cuseglio says, laughing. After reuniting to write some songs and jam, the Rye Coalition boys decided it was time to commit completely.
"Our original intention was, we were gonna ask our old guitar player [Wiley] if he wanted to come in and play guitar on 'Freshly Frankness.' He came down and it just naturally happened that we started working on other things," Cuseglio recalls. "Things seemed to be really jelling well, so we asked him to be part of the band again; it just seemed like the right time. Musically, we were heading in the same direction he was, and I think he adds a whole new element to the band.
"Rye has always been something, in our whole history, that was never a full-time thing," Cuseglio continues. "And I think we got to the point where we felt like it really deserved our full attention." That attention shows on On Top, which stands as an aural definition of Rye Coalition's theory of rock 'n' roll. "It's anything that makes you feel good, wanna have a good time, make you bang your head or stamp your feet, makes you wanna scream 'woo-hoo' and drink a couple of beers," as Cuseglio explains it.
Blur references notwithstanding, Rye Coalition and its latest opus is everything that's great and dirty about rock 'n' roll. With Rye, you get the feeling they're not just playing it, they're living it. Cuseglio, the only nonsmoker in the band, asserts that Rye Coalition is pro-cigarette, and considers Budweiser a staple. When asked if any members have done time, Cuseglio says thoughtfully, "I don't think anyone's been incarcerated, knock on wood. Not yet. A couple of us have come close to being incarcerated, but none of us actually made it to the can."
Despite the lack of personal experience to draw upon, Rye Coalition throws down a damn fine prison song on On Top. "Freshly Frankness" is a slowed-down, Tom Waits-esque tale of lockdown and breakout, complete with dirge-ish piano and Cuseglio growling to his moll, "You're my ball and chain, baby." About half the tracks on the album are themed around getting some, in the not-quite-Biblical way. On "Vacations," which is as rollicking as songs come these days, Cuseglio gets his Mrs. Robinson on, serenading a soccer mom, hollering "You don't know until you give it a try/You ever been with a younger guy?/Please say yes, all right!" On the horn-dog paean "Hot Strikes," your protagonist is looking for lovin' "as Zep plays in the background," against Rye's own searing riffs.