If you’ve heard of J Mascis, chances are you are a fan. Not only did the guy make some of the best alternative rock albums of the 1980s and early 1990s with his band, Dinosaur Jr, but his idiosyncratic method of rock songwriting influenced countless noise rock, shoegaze and grunge bands. On top of this, he is one of the few aging alternative icons to manage to grow old gracefully. Given that he is 49 this year, he is still incredibly prolific, dropping a succession of albums with Dinosaur Jr, and a few solo efforts, all of which stand up as equals to the material from his heyday, while still making progressions in his signature sound. If you haven’t heard of J Mascis, I would like to kindly enquire after what the fuck you have been doing with your life? Stop what you’re doing and go and listen to You’re Living All Over Me and Bug right now. Then sit in silence and think about all the time you have wasted not listening to Dinosaur Jr.
Still, when your resume looks as good as J Mascis’, then the pressure is always on to keep up the quality of his work. Luckily, the enigmatic guitar hero doesn’t seem to give a second thought to this, and has knocked out yet another meticulously crafted album in a way that sounds completely effortless.
When it’s stripped down, the elements that make up this album are recognisable to anyone who is familiar with Dinosaur Jr’s work. Mascis uses simple, but effective, pop-rock chord progressions, and layers them with his signature “how the fuck does he make it sound so good?” guitar tone. The upbeat lead single “Every Morning” uses this to great effect, turning four chords, a snare and a hi-hat into a blissfully catchy number with some typically singular electric guitar solos from the man himself. Meanwhile, the closing track, “Better Plane”, is a fantastic little alternative rock ditty transposed into a sleepy folk song. Elsewhere, the masterfully paced “Heal The Star” would sound right at home on any recent Dinosaur Jr release. The little flares at the end of the phrases sound built to have some kind of effect pedal turn them into a squealing mess; however, in this more stripped down environment, you realise how magnificent some of the songwriting on their records really is.
This is not to say Mascis is simply repeating old tricks. There are several moments on Tied To A Star, just as on his other solo records, where he displays his unexpected ability to write beautiful folk leads. The opening track, “Me Again”, is a perfect example of this. The riff twists and turns and weaves its way throughout the track, providing a perfect backdrop for Mascis’ murmured vocal performance. Wide Awake repeats this, but adds strings and a female vocalist into the mix, which gives the track a perfect amount of texture to keep you interested, without becoming overbearing. Things are also shaken up on the strangely danceable “Drifter”, which sounds like an instrumental soundtrack to dancing drunkenly around a fire, which is certainly something you can’t say about many Dinosaur Jr tracks.
Of course, there are certain drawbacks to hearing Mascis step away from his pedal board. For one, his voice takes more of a central role on his solo albums, and some potential problems with it arise. His voice may have a love it or hate it quality to it: if you’re expecting dam-busting Freddie Mercury like performances, it’s probably best to look elsewhere (a Queen record would be a good place to start). The higher ranges of his voice are often utilised on this album, too, which may grate some. In essence though, most people don’t come into folk or grunge records expecting explosive vocal performances, and J’s mumbled tones often fit the weary content of his lyrics perfectly. One could imagine the refrain of “how much can I take?” in “Trailing Off” would lose some of its impact if it was delivered with any gusto.
Another potential pitfall with this album is that it relies on a certain formula; although it has to be said, this formula often works. The key to Mascis’ solo material seems to be to start off a song with sparse arrangements, and then build to a crescendo in the middle of the track. This works absolutely blissfully in some places. In “And Then”, when the electric guitar kicks in, it offers an expected change of pace that adds so much to the track, and to the album as a whole. This is also done perfectly on the aforementioned taking off, when the accelerator is suddenly hit and Mascis delivers the most blistering solo of the album over a frantic performance from the acoustic, before returning to its previous pace as if the track was embarrassed about the outburst. However, on tracks like the awkwardly placed and overly long “Come Down”, this becomes an underwhelming chore. It’s difficult to deny that J is good at what he does, but on repeated listens, this can become a tad predictable.
Overall, though, Tied To A Star is yet another beautiful listen from one of the most underrated songwriters of his generation. J Mascis has a wonderful way of not overstating things; from taking the simplest of chord progressions and carefully building them into something memorable and unmistakably individual, to his guitar solos, which always stop before they become unnecessarily overblown. If you’re a fan of this man’s work, this is an essential album for your collection. If not, you better get started on listening to those Dinosaur Jr albums I recommended. Like, right this second. There really is no excuse not to. Get cracking.