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Jersey Devils

Rye Coalition: Angling for the title of quintessential Jersey City band.
Catherine Sorrentino

Just west of Manhattan, across the Hudson River, lies the burg of Jersey City, the second most populous township in New Jersey. It's a city littered with a history of corruption and mob influence, thanks to its Depression-era mayor, "Boss" Frank Hague, an FDR crony, and his successor, John V. Kenny, an organized-crime puppet eventually convicted in federal court. This is where we meet our heroes, the five bad-asses who make up Rye Coalition.

"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.

The track getting the most attention, from the press, at least, is "Born a Monkey in the Year of the Snake," which begins with this verse: "Hey Mr. Rock Journalist/How about a taste of my fist?/It's such an exciting twist to your cynic laptop wit."

"It seems as though that song has gotten blown out of proportion maybe," Cuseglio says when asked if the band has much trouble with the rock press. "There were a few particular instances where one magazine in particular had . . . word got back to us that they had snubbed us a few times, one person, really. When I wrote it, I guess it was just a way for me to vent how I felt about the situation that went on at this particular magazine. I've actually spoken to the writer who kinda wound up being the inspiration, and I guess we kinda cleared things up in some sort of way." Nonetheless, "Born a Monkey" is one of the best tracks on On Top, not just for its honest vitriol but the dual-guitar solos and "Hey man, you want some of this?" chorus.

While "Born a Monkey" is diverting the critics' attention, the real heart of the album is the preceding track, "Heart of Gold, Jacket of Leather," Rye Coalition's tribute to Jersey City. Describing the city's recent explosion of development, Cuseglio screams, "The downtown's gettin' high/Big buildings on a little sky/New York City's gonna hop the path train/Hip muthafuckas got a new game!" While this might seem a crude and oblique depiction, it's actually quite accurate.

"Downtown Jersey City has become this hip place to move, like New Yorkers migrating there for the rents," Cuseglio explains. "It's only like a five-minute train ride to New York City -- you can get from Jersey City to New York faster than Brooklyn to New York, so a lot of big businesses have moved in, they're starting to put in a lot of high-rise office buildings. It's nice to see Jersey City developing, but you've gotta put up with the bullshit that comes with it. Jersey City got its first Starbucks about a year and a half ago."

Rye Coalition has come, with its new album and current incessant touring, to represent Jersey City and show the world its roots. "We feel like Jersey itself is always getting a bum rap, y'know? People are always like, 'Jersey? Jersey's a shithole.' You always hear that sort of stuff. We all grew up here, we all spent most of our lives there outside of college and touring and stuff, and it's really not that bad of a place like people make it seem. We figured someone had to step up and represent. It's crazy -- there's bands from New Jersey who say they're from New York City. I don't know why, maybe they're ashamed or something."

Open the CD and there, on the liner notes, is a photo of the "Jersey City -- America's Golden Door" sign, Statue of Liberty proudly in the background. "The guy recording [On Top], Steve [Albini], he was like, 'It's kind of like a rap record in the way you're always giving shout-outs to where you're from,'" Cuseglio recalls. So does Rye consider itself the quintessential definition of the Jersey City sound? "I would have to say that we do, yeah. Unless there's a rap group of some kind . . . like Queen Latifah was living in Jersey City for a while, I think she's still livin' here." Maybe it's time Rye Coalition steps to the Queen for the title of Jersey City's official musical representative.

"You think we should start that up?" Cuseglio asks with a laugh.


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