Album Review: J Mascis – Tied to a Star




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An especially cynical assessment of the second formal solo LP by J Mascis could point to some flimsy, confirmation-biased assumption like: “You can hold a spot on the ‘90s indie rock hierarchy or you can embark on a solo endeavor separate from your defining band that stands a chance at true differentiation — but not both.” That kind of monolithic thinking is never totally fair, but we’ve had no shortage of Robert Pollard or Jicks albums to offer support from time to time. With his 2011 solo debut, Several Shades of Why, J Mascis piled on. Several Shades was a welcome extension to his resurrected legacy that came with a less-welcome consumer dilemma: Should we feel bad that a songwriter deserving of our full respect delivered a very good album that we’ll probably end up remembering and describing as “Dinosaur Jr., only acoustic”?

Tied to a Star doesn’t make it any easier. Again, these are very good songs that bear all the marks of the elder statesman’s voice. And, although they’re not Dinosaur Jr. songs, they’re somehow still quintessentially Mascis in similar ways — even if we’ve never heard him exactly like this before. In place of Dino’s Murph/Barlow amplification, there is one of two things: the occasional miscellaneous instrument — if only because this album is under Mascis’s name alone and he can do what he wants — or, more often, nothing at all. The small palette of Tied to a Star barely differs from that of Several Shades, and its tone is similarly subdued with almost no exceptions (there are precisely two full-on-Mascis electric solos here). Consider the two albums counterparts, guilt-free.

J Mascis

Artwork by Kristin Frenzel (Buy Prints + More!)

These songs stay down — even lower than on Several Shades. Frequently, they’ll arrive at a familiar point conducive to crescendoing, but where Dinosaur Jr. would ride them into the next gear (or three) up from there, they instead end at around four minutes, whole and singular. They also get extremely close, all 10 of them, Mascis often sounding like he’s mumble-groan-singing from inches away. The worthiest points of interest on Tied to a Star, therefore, are tied to individual moments. The percussion-beefed instrumental coda that dramatically transforms “Heal the Star”, which features nothing more than Mascis and one acoustic guitar before it; the muted solo on the back half of “And Then”, which is classic Mascis in motion, but not at all in texture; and the barely awake vocal cameo from Cat Power’s Chan Marshall on “Wide Awake” are all perfect little pieces of Mascis’s self that are most deserving of the little pieces of our memories he’s after.

Essential Tracks: “Wide Awake”, “And Then”