Ordinarily J Mascis is found fronting Dinosaur Jr, a band that positively thrives on fuzzed tones, unbelievable licks, and shredding guitar solos. When seeing them live, Mascis is surrounded by a wall of Marshall stacks that enshroud him in waves of cacophonous noise. His interviews appear to be guarded and tentative affairs, with him providing little more than the bare minimum required to constitute a response. Nothing is given away.
The volume of Dinosaur Jr seems to provide a sonic cocoon for Mascis. Of course there’s a palpable emotion to his band’s music, that much is undeniable, but his vocals are often buried, and the focus is often pulled towards his guitar playing.
Mascis’ third solo album Tied To A Star isn’t in the same vein as his Dinosaur Jr escapades. It’s quieter, but it isn’t entirely stripped back with some drums and electric guitar being used as sparingly. Occasionally, these rare forays into quieter territory offer a chance to hear Mascis with his guard almost down.
Me Again opens the album, and is a proper acoustic ballad and although the themes are familiar he appears so much more vulnerable than usual. His falsetto vocals drip with drained emotion, and the beautiful guitar work compliments the emotional tone of his words. Rather than his guitar providing a counterbalance to his vocals, it is working entirely in tandem with him and the result is every bit as emotive as the most tumultuous Dinosaur Jr songs.
It’s perhaps no surprise that drums make an appearance after such an emotive opening. The uptempo Every Morning is as close as he gets to a Dinosaur Jr tune with this collection. It’s also the closest he gets to straight up pop, although there are moments even during the relatively downbeat And Then that he rolls out some quite glorious hook laden harmonies. Trailing Off finds J emulating Johnny Marr’s style, landing somewhere between The Boy With The Thorn In His Side (which he covered on Martin And Me) and Bigmouth Strikes Again and wondering “how much can I take”.
Themes of introspection, depression and uncertainty feature heavily on the album, but are not treated in a way that becomes oppressive or self-pitying. If anything, these songs feel inclusive, despite their apparently insular nature.
Heal The Star features a full and deep acoustic guitar that booms like a heavy heart when J hits the bridges. He’s in contemplative and isolated mood. “Everybody’s rollin’ down town, I could use a little down town, I could use a bit less down” he croaks but the closing few minutes perform a nice about turn and take the song into more uplifting territory with a break that utilises Indian rhythms and signatures. It’s almost Led Zeppelin-esque and it’s a sound he returns to successfully on the instrumental Drifter; a song apparently created with a stoned afternoon gazing at clouds in mind.
For those who need reminding Mascis’ phenomenal guitar skills the fast finger picking lullaby of Wide Awake is a quite wonderful reminder. Beneath the tale of insomnia bought on by relationship troubles the guitar work is really quite breath-taking. Add in Chen Marshall’s understated but vital vocal contributions and some deft atmospheric flourishes and the end result is a song that ranks alongside some of Mascis’ best work. There’s also a solo tacked on to the end of Better Plane for anyone missing some real electric guitar action but in truth, the highlight of the song occurs much earlier with an almost sing-along refrain that perhaps inevitably ends with the words “to get me high, to get me by”.
Tied To A Star demonstrates that J Mascis’ songwriting doesn’t rely on volume but on his apparently effortless ability to write emotive music. “Sentimental me,” he sings on Me Again, but there’s more than sentimentality to these songs; they resonate at a more fundamental level.