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Album Review: J Mascis, ‘Tied to a Star’

Words by Scenewave Australia - Published on August 28, 2014

Former Dinosaur Jr front man, J Mascis (seen above looking like the hipster equivalent of Gandalf), is often heralded as one of the best guitar players in the world. Rolling Stone and Spin have him at number 86 and number 5 respectively, on their “100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time” lists. Dinosaur Jr, of course, are mentioned alongside Pixies and Sonic Youth  when talking about the most influential bands of the late 80s/90s alternative/indie rock scene. With Mascis at the helm, Dinosaur Jr crafted an eclectic mix of punk, fast paced garage rock, and Black Sabbath era metal with a uniquely country-folk twang that now characterises a lot of today’s post-punk.

Mascis isn’t a stranger to solo work: he’s released a number of albums recorded by himself and it’s widely known that during Dinosaur’s tumultuous history with its ever changing line-up, a large majority of what found its way onto their records was crafted by Mascis alone.

It’s surprising then that his solo work in recent years is completely without Dinosaur’s iconic grunge overtones and heavier elements. Instead  it favours a more acoustic-based approach. His second album with Sub Pop Records (The Shins, Fleetwood Foxes) drops in Australia tomorrow (Friday the 29th of August) and follows 2011’s Several Shades of Why. Titled Tied to a Star , it’s a unique combination of Mascis’s creaky Neil Young-esque vocals, a paired back take on the grunge movements droning backing guitar and heaps of distortion, overlayed with Mascis’s masterful acoustic guitar playing that shifts between thumping, smooth and at times, beautifully frantic. The greatest moments of bliss that the album can impart upon its listener, however, come when the electric guitar rides psychedelically above the LP’s acoustic elements to sprinkle twangy, kick-ass riffs throughout the backhalf of every song.

In this regard, it is an album that falls in waves. Most songs start simplistically enough only to be built upon with layers of dazzling acoustic guitar and bursts of electric. The lead single, “Every Morning”, carries its intensity from about the one minute mark, right until the end where a short but beautiful electric guitar solo overrides the remainder of the song to deliver a punchy finish. Other times, it’s a slower, less noticeable increase that fades to more wobbly, psyche driven sprinkles, as is the case with “Wide Awake”. “Wide Awake” also features the vocal talents of Chan Marshall (aka Cat Power) and the juxtaposition between her’s and Mascis’s voices is effective. The moments of electric guitar that litter each song stand out in part because they contrast so well with the acoustic aesthetics but also because Mascis uses the instrument so sparingly.

If you’re looking for a place to start, “Every Morning” is a solid choice. My personal favourite, “Trailing Off”, features Mascis’s steady vocals  drawn against layers of thumping and frantic acoustic chords that roll into powerful electric guitar at the back end of each chorus; but if you have the time, Tied to a Star is an album that deserves to be listened to in its entirety. The ideal setting would be pre-ing for a gig on a rainy Friday afternoon with some mates and your inebriation method of choice. Anyone keen?

Tied to a Star is available in Australia as of tomorrow, the 29th of August.

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