There must be some sort of introspection bug makings its way through the Valley's noise-loving musical crowd. How else to explain the near-simultaneous arrival of stripped-down solo efforts by two musicians known for their habitual ear-splitting?
First up was the solo effort, recently reviewed in these pages, by Amherst's J Mascis, of Dinosaur Jr. fame. Mascis has long supplied fans with an idiosyncratic blend of achey, near-cracking vocals and tangles of wandering, dizzy and overdriven guitar. To my ears, Dinosaur Jr.'s onslaught approach sometimes obscures the elements of songs, defaulting to a broad sonic similarity; at other times, it's a glorious realization of rock 'n' roll's best and loudest tendencies.
The extent of that tendency to obscure is revealed in large part by Several Shades of Why, Mascis' first solo album. With the extra elements of a rock band removed and an emphasis on acoustic guitar, Mascis is revealed as a songcrafter of such stout skills he could make a Nick Drake fan weep for joy. Who would have guessed a top-shelf folkie lay hidden under the feedback? It's an intriguing revelation that's likely to create a whole new crop of fans.
Similarly, another of the biggest names in noise in the Valley and farther afield, Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore, is releasing (May 24) his fourth solo record, Demolished Thoughts. I've been a fan of Sonic Youth for around a quarter-century, and my fascination with the band began because of a curious effect. Though Sonic Youth is similar in superficial, noisy ways to Dinosaur Jr., the band's use of noise adds up to an entirely different result.
Where Mascis sometimes sounds as if he's playing a long solo punctuated by odd intervals and chords, Moore and company usually focus on rhythmically repeating chords, crafting dissonant progressions that unspool slowly. It's no stretch to say Sonic Youth's noise is hypnotic, more an ocean through which waves of dissonance roll than a full-on shock to the system.
That makes the quieter sophistication of Moore's solo efforts a bit more expected, but it's nonetheless a treat to check out Demolished Thoughts. The album was produced by Beck, which is something of a clue to its sounds. The main instrumentation is acoustic guitar, harp and violin, the whole suffused with a dreamy feel propelled by the acoustic cousin of his rhythmic electric playing.
Things do get weird on Demolished Thoughts, but mostly around the edges, in intros or jagged progressions. The tune "Mina Loy" is a prime example, its discordant progression stirring up some medieval strain of folk, guided by a nearly Eastern vocal melody.
Such moments are the exception; most of the album is straight-ahead in its songmaking, moving with airy ease. It's a starkly beautiful collection of songs.
On both these albums, you can hear plenty of echoes from the electric music these players have created, but those half-familiar tropes take on a whole different kind of life here. Mascis and Moore both display formidable songwriting talents in an unexpected direction.
I don't quite know what you'd call the acoustic trail that's blazed in this kind of album, but it's exceptionally interesting stuff with few cousins in the more conventional folk world. Whatever it is, I hope we'll have more of it to listen to before long. It's enough to make you wonder if the next big folk star is currently busy toiling away in the free jazz world, waiting for a chance to pick up an acoustic guitar.