"There's a whole lot going on with respect to, like, there's so much ethnic diversity," JC resident and Rye Coalition frontman 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 among indie rock kids. The tracks were cacophonous rockers that owed a debt to both math rock and '70s heavy metal, unfurled with 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, 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. "Rye has always been something, in our whole history, that was never a full-time thing, 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 and roll. "It's anything that makes you feel good, makes 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 are everything that's great and dirty about rock and roll. 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 Waitsish tale of lockdown and breakout, complete with dirgelike 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 horndog paean "Hot Strikes," your protagonist is looking for lovin' "as Zep plays in the background," against Rye's own searing riffs.
The real centerpiece of the album, though, is "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."
With its new album and incessant touring, Rye Coalition has come 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.' We all grew up here, and it's really not that bad of a place like people make it seem. We figured someone had to step up and represent."
Open up On Top, and there, in the liner notes, is a photo of the "Jersey City -- America's Golden Door" sign, Statue of Liberty rising proudly in the background. 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.