J Mascis - Tied to a Star

On his latest effort for Sub Pop, Mascis composed, produced, and performed nearly every track, which is borne out in the record’s remarkable consistency.

Additional Info

8.0

ALBUM: J Mascis

ARTIST: Tied to a Star

2014

Alternative

Some musicians that play loud and hard get quiet and soft in their old age; they make Christmas albums and invest in real estate. It’s a natural progression, as the eardrums can only withstand so much. Time changes the mind and body in other ways, too. Yearnings disappear. Self-loathing wanes. The insatiable desire for validation tends to fade over time.

Of course, for some, this is not the case. Musicians like J Mascis, who have been making various kinds of fast, loud, and heavy music for the better part of three decades, do it to do it and can do nothing else. Through the refining of his craft, Mascis has established a clear and inviolate identity in the consciousness of all fans of Indie or Alternative music. His style is ubiquitous yet precise, everything and nothing. Punks, Metalheads, Guitar Nerds, Indie Rockers, Classic Rockers–they all find something to identify with in the music of J Mascis. It’s been a pleasure, then, to hear him remain true to his sound while expanding on tendencies found within and outside of his repertoire both as a solo musician and as godhead of Dinosaur Jr.

On his latest effort for Sub Pop, Tied to a Star, Mascis composed, produced, and performed nearly every track, which is borne out in the record’s remarkable consistency. There are notably far fewer guest spots on this record than its predecessor, 2011’s Several Shades of Why, which caught many off-guard as the acoustic record J Mascis would never make. These albums certainly don't represent the first time Mascis has ever used acoustic guitars–his “first” acoustic show at CBGB’s, recorded in 1993, was re-mastered and released in 2006. Nor is it remarkable for one to improve their craft after twenty years of practice; it’s both the degree of Mascis’ development as a player since that recording, as well as the fact that he was already such an accomplished player, that astonishes.

There’s a spiritual link between his work with Dinosaur Jr. from the early 90’s and his recent acoustic releases. Many of the ideas explored on Tied to a Star were first prodded on Green Mind (1992) and Where You Been (1993). Much of Star is sung in falsetto, which we find on “Muck” and “Water” from Green Mind and, less effectively, on “Start Choppin” from Where You Been. Mascis has thankfully practiced his vocals since then, too, and mostly serves the listener well amid cunningly produced harmonies. Star features solid vocal performances throughout, notably on lead single “Every Morning” and final track “Better Plane”. Even if it was more interlude than centerpiece., we’ve also seen the kind of swelling, grandiose acoustic composition before, in “Flying Cloud” off of Green Mind (only, again, with better singing).

Mascis has also taken inspiration from less obvious sources, drawing from 70’s Rock icons like Neil Young and Fleetwood Mac. These are intuitive nods for a musician as experienced and knowledgeable as Mascis, who’s always plumbed the depths of rock history for his riffage. Truly stunning, however, are homages to American Primitivism, the kind of Appalachian raga pioneered by the likes of John Fahey, Leo Kottke, and Robbie Basho, and more recently dissected by Sir Richard Bishop and James Blackshaw. Both “Heal the Star” and “Drifter” borrow from this rich tradition of American instrumentalists, and shock the listener in their conversant execution.

Yet the clearest victory is that this record remains uniquely J Mascis. He’s sharpened the dull edges from Several Shades and turned out a collection of tracks that ranks highly in his canon on the virtues of its songwriting. Perhaps this can be attributed to the re-introduction of his signature electric guitar solos, which impoverished Several Shades with their absence. For a record that Mascis seems to have wanted to make more his own in the shaving down of collaborators, it makes sense to include such a signature.

Tied to a Star finds Mascis comfortable enough to rely on his strengths when plugging in, but curious and brave enough to reconnoiter new terrain. There’s just enough here for everyone: Indie Folkers, Barlowites devoted to You’re Living All Over Me, and even the retired rockers who need it turned down a bit, a little too wearied by Dinosaur Jr.’s last album.

“Tell me everything you heard; daunting and a bit unsure.”

1. Me Again
The record opens with two acoustic guitar parts interlocking like the zipper of a great hoodie: familiar, soft, and perfectly fitting. Mascis’ creaky voice has aged well, and all the practice has lent some range. He debuts this year’s version of the Mascis falsetto, which feels like it could be a lost tooth in the zipper. Yet the singing has improved to the degree that his well-placed harmonies are a whole new texture to explore for Mascis’ ingenious song craft. Here, this assured vocal performance ties the song together, but has perhaps distracted Mascis the editor, as the track could probably lose a minute and sound tighter.8.0
2. Every Morning
There’s a bit of Fleetwood Mac going on here. Maybe it’s that classic combination of vigorous multi-tracked acoustic rhythm guitars and smooth, piercing electric guitar solos. I feel like I could hear Lindsey Buckingham neigh weird sexy things above this instrumental. As it is, Mascis again is able to pull off a layered harmony, only here it plays a more central role. He bridges the two worlds occupied by his dual presence (the eponymous acoustic records, and the electric fury of Dinosaur Jr.) so effectively. The fusion is a promising beacon in under-explored territory.8.5
3. Heal the Star
This song should almost be divided into two tracks. The majority of the song meanders, exploring the falsettoverse with technically wondrous guitar work, but few of the sharp hooks we’ve come to expect from Mascis. About three quarters of the way through, the song transforms into a lovely raga that showcases just what an incredible guitar player J Mascis is. The listener is eased into a completely new musical space as if into baptismal water. It’s not only that J Mascis is an electric guitar God playing acoustic; he’s fluidly shaping the world as he plays. Just when we thought we were lost, Hallelujah.7.5
4. Wide Awake
Showcasing J Mascis’ ear for the euphonious melding of strings, this track recalls some of his strongest compositional work. It’s a song of longing, as Mascis beckons a wayward partner to come over in the wee hours. The track is also lent luster by the gorgeous backing vocals of Cat Power’s Chan Marshall, a musician whose own voice betrays many nights of sleeplessness. Here is where some Dinosaur Jr. devotees may turn off the record, as the finger-picked acoustic textures and weary whispers don’t exactly recall a “Freak Scene.” But at its heart, this is a J Mascis track through-and-through: layered with hooks and melodies, bluntly honest, and just catchy enough to crash on the couch inside your head for a while.9.5
5. Stumble
Calling this track on of the album’s few “low points”, is misleading, as this is still strong work. Mascis’ falsetto returns, and this time for the whole track. Once again, it sounds not so bad, which is as far as it goes. There’s a paucity to “Stumble” compared to the album’s other songs. It’s not simply that there are fewer hooks, tracks, atmospherics; there’s less gravity to the melody itself. Not a “skip-over” track, but certainly not the standout.6.5
6. And Then
This is the album’s most forwardly melancholic track. He asks “Who would I go to then / This friend?/This friend? / This friend? / And then?” The right channel’s guitar serves to fertilize this sadness with little leads; they bud in patterned flourishes throughout. But the track’s midpoint crescendo is what allows the song to fully blossom. We’re offered more atmosphere in vocal harmony, and a piano that adds pathos to the track. It’s more effective interplay between acoustic and electric instruments, as well, as Mascis continues to find a sweet spot in his oeuvre.8.0
7. Drifter
Fully channeling the American Primitive guitarists here, Mascis composes an instrumental track that buzzes with energy. It’s a clear nod to those intersecting styles of East and West popularized by Basho, Kottke, and Fahey, but it’s still unmistakably J Mascis. He’s able to retain his unique, unrelenting infectiousness. It’s so refreshing to hear Mascis play a little harder on the acoustic, too, as we are given a little bit more of the textural command that sometimes lacks in contrast to Dinosaur Jr. songs.8.5
8. Trailing Off
This track is a bit deceptive. At first it sounds like this record is going stale, with a little bit too much of the surface-level hookiness and a little too much repetition. But once again, on the strength of the electric solos the song builds into something altogether different. It’s the same formula: pianos, acoustic guitars, electric guitars, drums. But it’s the energy that distinguishes this track, a culminating thump that resets halfway through to do it all over again. The second go-round is transformed by the preceding crescendo, now given context by the thrill of the chorus. The song is twin peaks and rough valleys.8.0
9. Come Down
Recalling the middling “Stumble” from earlier, there’s a sort of shapelessness in the meek vocal performance and the unsatisfying way the melody resolves. It’s not that the pieces don’t fit, it’s that they form a manila envelope of a song. The droning feedback in the background almost lends a late-night radio feeling, like it was written half-conscious. Even the expected energy of the interlude doesn’t really satisfy, coming and going and then gone without impact. A low point that comes across as far more scattershot than the rest of the album’s tightly composed and incisive tracks.6.0
10. Better Plane
The record’s ultimate track is perhaps the finest. It’s as if Mascis was listening to Harvest while writing this. The vocal performance is perfected, as that tricky transition from mid-range creak to falsetto rings brilliantly in harmony. Mascis finds a NeilYoung-ian balance in making a weird voice sound great. Every melody is perfect; every layer leavens the song. Listen for that eight-note counter-melody Mascis plays on the acoustic’s lower strings at 2:38, or the intentionally simplistic electric lead that occupies so much space in the song’s final half. “Better Plane” is a mosaic without a single piece missing. It’s not to say that J Mascis sounds like Neil Young, mind you; this is unquestionably a work his own.9.5
Written by Ethan Milner
Ethan Milner is a writer, musician, and counselor in Eugene, Oregon. His writing on music can be found in the archives of MotorCityRocks.com, and his poetry has been published in numerous journals, most recently Eunoia Review.

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