ALBUM: J Mascis
ARTIST: Tied to a Star
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.”