RAINER MARIA

"Long Knives Drawn"

Polyvinyl

MATES OF STATE

"Our Constant Concern"

Polyvinyl

The members of Rainer Maria may still be feeling murky, but their music has gotten much clearer. On the New York area sensitive-punk trio's early recordings, Kyle Fischer's guitar cloaked the songs in noise while he and bassist Caithlin De Marrais sang together, seemingly trying to cancel each other out. But the new "Long Knives Drawn" finds De Marrais firmly established as the band's lead singer, and Fischer tempering his attack with chiming riffs that suggest early R.E.M.

The lyrics have also become more direct and inclusive. "The Awful Truth of Loving" uses a near-folkie melody to consider romance not as a singular tribulation but as "the dilemma / Of boys and girls for centuries," and the closing "Situation: Relation" sounds closer to Sandy Denny than Sonic Youth. As the surging "Ears Ring" demonstrates, Rainer Maria has not diluted its sound, just refined it. The refrain of "Mystery and Misery" announces that the band is now prepared to harness its music for something more than expressing its own angst: "Mystery and misery," De Marrais sings, "can sometimes be a call to action."

The male-female vocal interplay that's been pushed to the margins of Rainer Maria's sound is at the center of Mates of State's. Kori Gardner and Jason Hammel, who are legally as well as musically wedded, sing with and against each other as her elaborate keyboard figures weave around his straightforward drum beats. The duo's second album, "Our Constant Concern," starts with a dinky riff that promises synth-pop, but the Mates' music is livelier and more fluid than most of that genre. Songs like "Quit Doin' It" and "Clean Out" employ frequent tempo changes, structural twists and jaunty refrains to keep this relationship from becoming routine.

-- Mark Jenkins

Both appearing Thursday at the Black Cat with Saturday Looks Good to Me. * To hear a free Sound Bite from Rainer Maria, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8126; to hear Mates of State, press 8127. (Prince William residents, call 703-690-4110.)