Guitarists get all the glory, but it’s the rhythm section that makes the band. While a melody or lyric often remains as the salient part of the song in a listener’s memory, it’s the way the song moves that first opens space in the listener’s consciousness. Beneath the star-encrusted surface of rock history are the unsung rhythm sections that drove the evolution of style and continue to define the sound of scenes and genres.
The duo of drummer Ian White and bassist Mitch Masterson are a formidable local example. They might be regarded as the house band for Swordpaw Studios, the recording space in Troy’s Oakwood Community Center. As a rhythm section and production team, they’ve lent their touch to a number of local bands and recording projects. Their most enduring group has been Bear Grass, the folk-rock quartet fronted by Katie Hammon, but they’ve recently begun to shop their services around, lending subtle support to kindred acts.
In late April, one of those acts, Careers, released a short EP of the work they’ve been busily plying in local clubs. The band is largely a vehicle for Stephen Stanley (formely of Barons in the Attic), whose unadorned vocals and reverb-drenched guitar is matched nicely by Meagan Duffy’s ever-tasteful sensibilities. Le Rêve is the kind of record the tube amplifier was invented to produce, with Stanley and Duffy’s Fenders chiming angelically over the understated pulse from White and Masterson. “It’s the far off place between here and dreaming where we’ll finally meet,” Stanley sings on “Lucid Lullabye,” charting the gauzy distance the rhythm section must maintain to support the band’s forays into dream pop and shoegaze.
The duo step forward a few paces with Great Mutations, a trio rounded out by singer-guitarist Matthew Thouin. The band’s debut, Cheap Stuff, will come out in July. Thouin’s sensibilities lean on ’90s indie rock, with cursory nods to Pavement and Guided by Voices but with the thorny Gen X angst scrubbed away. A better contemporary reference might be to the major-key pop rock of bands like Real Estate and Pure X, whose brandishment of sunny consonance seems almost ironic at first until its reliability proves brazen. This formula gives White and Masterson a little more space and a brighter tempo to flex within, but they’re careful never to step on Thouin’s measured melodies. Recorded between Swordpaw and Thouin’s home studio, the record is studio pop of the most sturdy architecture, with keyboards, strings and harmonica sprinkled in for that high-resolution glow. Cheap Stuff is a kind of blues for first-world affliction, using the approximated perfection of verse and chorus as an antidote to the culture of domestic good-enough. “Each solution fine but never feeling like the best,” Thouin sings on the title track, “left on the fence, and all your friends say don’t be so sensitive, only to find their best years spent in offices.”
White and Masterson’s unobstrusiveness on both of these releases is their great gift, as well as their shy brand. Good pop becomes subliminal on some level and for that to happen the rhythm section has to be good about covering their tracks.