As singer and guitarist for Dinosaur Jr., J Mascis presides over a sound that can be skull-splittingly loud and intense, especially onstage. It feels strange to describe Tied to a Star as a "quiet" record, even by simple comparison, but for the most part Mascis' new solo album feels downright delicate. Though not entirely unplugged, Tied to a Star showcases the soft intricacy of a veteran craftsman who knows when to hang back and decide to pulverize another day.
Mascis has shown this sort of versatility before, but rarely with such straight-ahead beauty in his arsenal. There's always been a gnarled quality to his voice that seems better aligned with his eardrum-obliterating electric side, but on Tied to a Star Mascis nicely nurtures the gentle fragility of his falsetto. With its light, intricate acoustic picking, "Wide Awake" sounds plenty gorgeous before Chan Marshall shows up to make listeners wish that she and Mascis would record an album of duets. (Let's be honest, though: Marshall should record an album of duets with everyone.)
In a messy, epic recording career that's about to enter its fourth decade, Mascis has never shed his capacity to travel in unexpected directions. On the sweet, shaggily swooning Tied to a Star, the jolts tend to come from the music's simple beauty — and from the occasional reminder, as in "Every Morning," that Mascis can still let an epic electric solo rip whenever the mood strikes.
Kevin Martin, the shadowy English musician behind The Bug, could make "Happy Birthday" come across as a brooding dirge streaked with reminders of inescapable entropy and death. In other imposing projects — the creeping industrial-metal group God, the seething electronic act Techno Animal — he's established himself as a furrow-browed master of musical heaviness taken to formidable extremes. But Martin has a way with finesse, too; a hold on his rage that keeps his furious sounds from turning into blasts from mere tantrums.
All of which invites a certain question: reggae? That's the sound Martin mines the most in his music as The Bug, and he mines it improbably well. Reggae, of course, is more than just laconic rhythms and lilting one-love collegiality. It can be stormy, defiant and, especially in the murky electronic form of dub, marked by mystery. Martin homes in on all of that at once, with an ear for the welding that can make it all fit together.
Past Bug albums such as Pressure and London Zoo have grabbed at the antic energy that powers digital dancehall, with its thwacking electronic beats and madcap toasting (not unlike rapping but not entirely like it, either). Angels & Devils, however, takes a wider view of bigger and more varied soundscapes. "Void" opens the album with a gauzy, glassy-eyed gaze, as Liz Harris (a.k.a. Grouper) mewls over midtempo rhythms and leaves evaporating vocal trails enlisted mostly for texture and mood. The ominously throbbing "Fall," featuring Inga Copeland from the mischievous duo Hype Williams, ratchets up the intensity, but even then, the power comes mostly from confinement and restraint.
At the album's midpoint, though, it becomes clear that the angels and devils in the title each have their side. Starting with "The One," the album's harder second half dives into the noisy, agitated muck of dancehall and grime, a U.K. variant of hip-hop that has cultivated its own traits. Rappers Flowdan, Manga and Warrior Queen mouth off in the remaining tracks with a pleasing degree of energy and menace, and the mercurial U.S. duo Death Grips finds a sympathetic soul in Martin, whose every creak and clang sounds somehow cataclysmic. In its outermost extremes, this excoriating, enervating music offers the promise of a cleansing, like greasy hands scoured with gritty soap. But there's sensitivity and a sense of craft in all the intricately rendered echoes and crevices, too.
Coming up in a small punk scene still has a place in a post-Internet world, even as blogs and music websites can instantaneously spread an underground band's sounds far and wide. When word about Tampa's Merchandise began to spread in 2012 thanks to the social-media success of albums like Children of Desire and Total Nite, the group seemed to emanate far apart from most trends. Merchandise might never get mistaken for a hardcore punk band, but that DIY spirit pervaded its dark, well-crafted songs, even if they sounded more at home in the gloomy climes of Manchester than in sunny Tampa.
On After the End, Merchandise's fourth album, the group similarly looks to a pre-Internet era for its sound. Here, it's the early '90s, when outcast teenagers could find solace in local punk, college rock acts like R.E.M. and The Church, and mopey U.K. bands like The Smiths and Depeche Mode, with no need to differentiate between scenes. There's even a song about waiting by the telephone for a call in an age when everyone has a computer set to vibrate in their front pocket.
In stepping up its sonic palette for After the End, Merchandise tapped a producer who'd worked extensively through that era, Gareth Jones. Jones' resume includes the aforementioned Depeche Mode, as well as Erasure and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, and he demonstrates a light touch here. He never bothers to make Merchandise sound like his previous clients, but instead gives the band freedom to move through cinematic instrumentals like "Corridor," the echoing piano of the title track and the moody synthesized tones of "Green Lady."
It's hard to hear After the End's catchy, guitar-driven single ("Little Killer") and not imagine it on heavy rotation during the heyday of MTV's 120 Minutes. In "Enemy" and "Looking Glass Waltz," frontman Carson Cox even sounds like Morrissey at his most immediate and cagey, as he sings of self-determination and the end of the world with a tone that's at once dour and meditative.
It's easy to feel the romance in the musical relationship between Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst. In the five years since the married duo came upon the name Shovels & Rope to describe the music they make from whatever's lying around the house, the pair has become a musical embodiment of how loving couples make it work: trading off instruments, forming loose and forgiving harmonies at the top of their lungs, and offering up songs that revel in life's energy, comical moments and dented beauty. But Trent and Hearst have also always been interested in the common and the problematic, telling stories not about bicycles built for two, but of old cars that carry lovers who sometimes court disaster, or lonely people whom life hasn't treated so well. In performance, Shovels & Rope presents an ideal; on record, the band keeps it real and rough.
Swimmin' Time, the third Shovels & Rope album, also gets wet. Liquid runs through these songs, which mostly take place in the South, with its rising rivers and weak levees and mysterious sinkholes. The title track doesn't describe a vacation but an ominously creeping sea level, maybe one Hearst and Trent see on the estuary where they live in South Carolina. "Stono River Blues" speaks for a subsistence fisherman who remembers the slave rebellion that once took place on that coastal channel, while "Coping Mechanism" is a doo-wop song about intravenous drug use. In "Thresher," a philosophical ghost recounts a historic disaster, the sinking of a U.S. military submarine in 1963. There are also tales of people whose fates are as tricky as a current: petty criminals and homeless wanderers, happy couples who accept each other's faults, a man under arrest who dolefully declares, "I hit my kids, but I don't mean to."
The concept behind Swimmin' Time never feels burdensome, because Hearst and Trent create such vivid characters and make such opulently open-ended music. With only two players — plus judicious additions from horn-playing multi-instrumentalist Nathan Koci — Shovels & Rope touches upon hard blues, early soul, folk revivalism, Laurel Canyon rock and noirish theatricality. ("Ohio" is like a lost song from Brecht and Weill's Threepenny Opera.) Trent produced Swimmin' Time at the couple's home studio, and he preserves the raggedness that, for this duo, doesn't mean sloppiness. Instead, he brings out a commitment to rhythms and harmonies that play with time and tune, as well as a determination to find the spots where that looseness is, as people said in the old days, "ragged but right."
"I put the lines out in the water in the morning," one of the fisher folk sings on Swimmin' Time. "They'll be loaded by the end of the day." Trent and Hearst sing the chorus like it's an old gospel testimonial. That's the spirit of Shovels & Rope: If your spirit's right, hope comes cheap, and it will help even when you're being pulled downward. On Swimmin' Time, Hearst and Trent imagine a rough tide, but the human spirit both cultivate so well preaches not just survival, but also happiness on the other side of the swell.
For every guitar band that goes down, two laptop acts seem to rise to take its place. What's a six-string fan to do in a MacBook Pro world? Try checking out The Wytches. The British trio internalizes 21st-century angst, letting it fester until it erupts in an outpouring of confused catharsis. You just might need AppleCare after listening to the group's debut album, Annabel Dream Reader.
The Wytches' members lay their whole mise en scene on thick, but in order to sell a performance, sometimes you need to take it all the way, and singer-guitarist Kristian Bell is ready to drive this one straight into the sanitarium. His band borrows from the best to contextualize a sound that's at once heavy, sinister, tuneful and theatrical, piling on the fuzz and reverb until the songs practically foam at the mouth. You'll recognize the dark corners of these songs instantly, but they're handled in a manner that favors bombast.
Seasoned listeners will recognize the sort of riffs on which The Jesus Lizard and The Birthday Party staked their careers, but they're deployed with a little bit of cheek when it's needed, as well as a keen sensibility about when to let the guitar detonate, to the point where you half-expect Bell to don a cardigan and smash his instrument to pieces. His voice snarls and snaps, quavers and hisses and twirls off into hiccuping falsetto. But his signature move seems to be a full-throated howl which, when coupled with the power moves applied by Dan Rumsey's pummeling basswork and Gianni Honey's no-nonsense drumming, really does call to mind no less than Nirvana.
Bell's lyrics don't hold the same poetic abstraction for which Kurt Cobain was known; he's too directly personal, the voice of a heartsick young man rather than a generation. But his focus on the agony of first loves and misunderstandings — the way his "dignity collapses" against a femme fatale in "Wire Frame Mattress" or, for a more blunt example, the entire song "Fragile Male For Sale" — will no doubt speak to a whole graduating class of freshly tortured young people. Bell's lyrical trials find surprisingly sensitive footing in Annabel Dream Reader's pair of ballads, "Weights and Ties" and "Summer Again," both of which waltz along from whisper to anguished scream. In these moments, The Wytches' music provides a reminder that while anyone can generate power and heat, few know how to harness it.