Anyone who spends occasional nights in the rock clubs on both sides of the Charles River knows that Boston is a guitar town. Devote enough time to soaking up the blare of amplifiers in smoky rooms and you’ll also realize that most local guitarists don’t use their instruments in particularly interesting or expressive ways. But Boston is lucky enough to have a population of six-stringers who do. Among them are Mark Dwinell, Allen Devine, and Tim Mungenast, all of whom perform regularly in the area and have new albums.
Dwinell has the most rarefied pedigree, though his music offers much more than snob appeal. He’s one of the founding guitarists of Bright, who’ve been known for building Caligari-like castles of sound since their 1994 inception. Dwinell and Joe and Paul LaBrecque began the group as a foursome led by their electric-guitar improvisations — big, clashing-and-meshing sheets of sound (at their best creating the kind of wasps’ nests of overtones that were once stock-in-trade for the guitar composer Glenn Branca and for Sonic Youth) teamed with the unpredictable discipline of krautrockers Can and Faust. Sometimes the results were transcendent — LSD for the ears. Sometimes they were gnawing, gristly, and dissonant. Either way, they were always interesting.
Over the course of performing and recording several albums — ’96’s Bright, ’97’s The Albatross Guest House, and 2000’s Full Negative (or) Breaks (all on Ba Da Bing!) among them — Bright evolved from all-instrumental rock-rooted performances to incorporating lyrics and acoustic guitars. Right now the band are on hiatus, but Dwinell seems busier than ever. His solo debut, Nonloc (Ba Da Bing!), is poised for release, and he’s embarked on a series of live appearances, both solo and in collaboration with Cul de Sac violinist Jonathan LaMaster. He’s also on a creative streak with his visual art, having painted a large-scale mural color study — actually, he calls it a "color accumulation" — at Evos Arts in Lowell, where he regularly performs, and prepared paintings for a solo exhibition at Evos (opening this Friday, February 7) and a group show at Cambridge’s Zeitgeist Gallery ("Between Rock and an Art Place" opens this Wednesday, February 12, and will run through March 2).
Dwinell also painted the cover of Nonloc, a CD that offers plenty of entry points even for those who were intimidated by Bright’s sonic juggernauts. These start with the opener, "A Glorious Noise," which like "There’s No One" and "Run to Our Mothers" carries the torch of psychedelic folk pop as ignited by Pink Floyd co-founder Syd Barrett’s solo albums. Using loops built from piano, clarinet, and accordion lines (they’re especially prominent on "There’s No One"), Dwinell creates a base for his chugging, probing guitar and gently sung poetry. His lyrics drip with anxiety, fear, insecurity — and a streak of protest. "Weak men," he sings, "are running everything/Weak men/Control most of our images/Weak men/have ruled for far too long." Which makes this perfect music for the times.
Although Dwinell’s electric guitars do the occasional cameo to provide color, acoustic guitar is the album’s dominant instrument, especially the instrumental "Non Composition," "Daily Reprieve," and "Non Pastoral," where he makes like another of his heroes, the late acoustic-six-string guru John Fahey. Dwinell is living in Dracut these days, but for the past few years he was in Providence, and it was there that he picked up a roommate’s classical guitar and fell in love with the purity of its tone. With Nonloc he intended to dive into the same pools of textural, ambient music that Bright do, but as he found himself playing and even performing live solo dates on acoustic more often, things took a different course. "After relying on a lot of feedback and sonic textures, it’s really interesting to get back into the roots of the acoustic instrument," he explains. "I’ve found it to be really challenging. As I got close to making the album, I was also working up actual song and lyrics, which is something Bright never emphasized much. I had all this poetry I’d written and decided to marry it to the acoustic music I’d been playing."
Dwinell’s compositions form a good soundtrack to the rainbow-burst hues of his paintings, so it makes sense that his gallery show at Evos (www.evosarts.com) will feature both. His mural will be unveiled along with paintings and a large series of hand-painted CD covers. There’s also the hint of at least a partial Bright performance in the air for that night. But Dwinell seems even more excited about a gig coming up this Wednesday, February 12, at the Middle East. He’ll be opening for Boston’s Cul de Sac, a group led by prominent Fahey disciple Glenn Jones. And Cul de Sac will be joined by another of his heroes: Damo Suzuki of Can.
DWINELL’S EXPERIMENTAL-MUSIC CREDENTIALS are patent. On the other hand, most clubgoers who’ve seen Allen Devine on stage with StarDarts, Asa Brebner, Mark Cutler, Janet LaValley, or any of the host of other singer-songwriters to whom he’s lent his guitar skills would be surprised by Mishap (Devdisc). This album, available at www.windjam.com, is a calculated departure from his own songwriting as well, instead straddling the traditional instrumentalism of his idols Jeff Beck and Roy Buchanan and the world of dissonance, texture, and extended technique associated with ambient music. He crafted the disc’s 10 instrumentals to display his ability to make soundtrack-ready music to TV and film talent scouts. "Then I figured out how difficult that industry is, so I just decided to consider it a pop record."
At that, it’s an instrumental pop record full of gritty and sliding steel and slide guitars, weird skittering tones, splashes of percolating robot rhythms, wah-wah pedals that glibber with the industrial character of rusty drop forges — but all in service of easy-on-the-ear melodies. And no matter how unpredictable Devine might get, it all hinges on melody. After all, he is given to spiking the straight-ahead rock tunes he plays with his new Allen Devine Group at joints like the Abbey Lounge with a cover of Jeff Beck’s gorgeous " ’Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers." What Mishap amounts to is this skilled guitarist’s most personal instrumental expression, as it marries big, classic-rock tones with the just-off-center instincts of a sound sculptor like Adrian Belew. The line-up Devine performs with live includes bassist Chuck Veth and drummer Booth Hardy.
AS A LYRICIST, Watertown-based guitarist Tim Mungenast clocks in somewhere between Syd Barrett and Eric Idle. And given that it has songs like the paranoid "Lithium Statement" and "He Is Radio" (which opens with the lines "There is a man who lives as a radio wave/I am not qualified to tell you why"), you won’t be surprised to learn that his second album is called The Un-Stableboy (Goat River).
Although humor is wired into Mungenast’s psyche, he’s also a serious musician. That’s obvious right from the pseudo sitar sound that opens the disc on "Candles," a spooky/spoofy raga rocker about candle meditation and astral projection. The sonic effect is produced by a funky old TEISCO (Tokyo Electric Instrument Company) six-string he modified with an epoxy casting of an old Danelectro Buzz Bridge — the smoothly serrated bridge that induced the instrument maker’s psychedelic-era electric sitars to resonate somewhat akin to the genuine Indian article.
The Un-Stable Boy, available at www.mungenast.com, is part of a trilogy of releases Mungenast initiated in 1999 with Birth of Monsters. Like Mungenast himself, who sings in a lilting if small-ranged croon, both CDs are politely demented, but the final entry promises to be entirely bent. "I’m planning to call it Famous Goats I Have Known," he explains. "I’ve been writing a series of songs about goats. I have a goat thing. I just love goats. That’s part of my personal mythology. Jimmy the Goat is my alter ego, on whom I blame all my off-color jokes, odd moaning noises, and lecherous stares. Then there’s Spacegoat. He’s like Buzz Lightyear in that he’s on the side of good, but he’s not all there. The album’s largely written, and it’s very silly — but it’s going to rock very hard." Head-butting hard, of course.