It’s easy to forget how great of a songwriter J Mascis is. Due to his association with the distortion, punk-infused, grunge rock of Dinosaur Jr., which he founded in 1984 with Lou Barlow and Murph, Mascis is acknowledged as being one of the leading contributors to the rise of alternative rock and grunge and for his superb guitar skills. Not often is he celebrated for his ability to craft songs, which capture the essence of the things that affect us the most – that of love, yearning, disconnection, and missed opportunities.
It is also forgotten that Mascis has long dabbled in folk rock, indie-folk, and melodic, acoustic rock, whether solo or with Dinosaur Jr. On his third solo album (if you also count Martin + Me), Tied to a Star, the softer side of Mascis is on full display. And maybe it’s cliched to say this, but the subtle, stripped down allows his words to resonate more fully while the guitar solos play supporting roles as oppose to being the headliner.
The stellar opening track, “Me Again”, reminds us immediately the diverse skills of Mascis. We hear his trademark nasal drawl which shift to his notable high falsetto. The melody is a dreamy acoustic piece that takes us to a sentimental space not often found on Dinosaur Jr albums (although definitely on his previous solo album, Several Shades of Why). “Wide Awake” barely goes beyond a whisper, yet it packs emotional punch as the tender voices of Masics and Cat Power’s Chan Marshall yearn for more. “And Then” might be the closest thing Mascis has written to a full-out a love song. And while it may not be cutting new ground in the world of love songs, the execution is excellent, taking the listener on a wave of emotions.
Tied to a Star wouldn’t be a Mascis album if there weren’t some mid-tempo tunes, guitar solos, and distortion. “Every Morning” is an upbeat, folk-rock tune that is sprinkled with a couple of guitar solos. But on the track, Mascis shows restraint, not going for the elongated guitar solos but rather a couple of brief spurts. “Stumble”, while low key, is supported in the background by distortion, but again Mascis holds back on the reverb, thus allowing his falsetto to shine through. These are the two tracks that best bridge Mascis as the frontman of Dinosaur Jr. to the Mascis, the singer-songwriter.
The whole album is focused on subtlety and clarity. There isn’t an intent to go full-blown rock on the album. As such, it is the continuing experiment of restraint for a living legend of alternative rock, showing us that Mascis will be around for a very long time, whether blowing our minds with reverb and distortion or mesmerizing us with his subtle, skillful guitar abilities and the sincerity of his songwriting.
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