As J Mascis transcends from mere grunge-rock pioneer to bona fide guitar hero/legend, it’s an interesting time to assess just what it is that has kept his singular brand of fretboard mastery so appealing. Amidst the huge catalog of material he’s written and released with Dinosaur Jr., Mascis has supplied equal parts electric-shred yin to subtly brilliant acoustic yang, offering both mellow yelps of longing and grumpy whines as toppings for great rock ‘n’ roll. On his second solo record, Tied to a Star, Mascis molds yet another subdued prism through which to glimpse his rare genius as a guitarist and songwriter.
Just as on his debut solo LP, Several Shades of Why, Mascis doesn’t rely solely on the spectacle of stripped-down acoustic renditions of songs that could have just as easily been Dinosaur Jr. tunes. Acoustic-based, ramblin’ ballads like opener “Me Again,” in fact, would find tough company amidst the swirling psych-pop-punk of Dino. Mascis’ delicate finger-picking and groaning vocals exist in elegant harmony with loose melodies, overdubbed solos, piano and ambient key swells. As a pace-setter for the remainder of the album, “Me Again” as a self-aware song title isn’t exactly fitting. It is, however, an honest portent of how beautifully composed the vast majority of Tied to a Star ends up.
On “Heal the Star,” Mascis strums a driving acoustic guitar pattern with open-chord heaviness as the song opens up, utilizing his sense of dynamics to thrust the mood into something altogether uneasy. Mascis switches to his typically fragile falsetto range on the chorus, slowly sneaking in reverse-guitar effects with an electric ax while practically whispering the song’s title. Another of Tied to a Star’s calling cards unfolds immediately after this blossoming, when muted drums enter to fill out the song’s spiraling jam quotient into a kind of free-improv explosion of fills and tribal beats.
Guest appearances on the LP include vocal accompaniment by Chan Marshall on “Wide Awake,” which again showcases Mascis’ gorgeous, octopusian fingerpicking. Marshall’s harmonies add little to the dynamic of the song, but she’s given her own spotlight in the repeated song-title refrain before drums are introduced again near the song’s climax, inviting more pianos into the mix. Outside of Marshall, Mascis also taps Ken Maiuri (Young@Heart Chorus), Pall Jenkins (Black Heart Procession) and Mark Mulcahy (Miracle Legion) for cameos.
Mascis’ somewhat recent predilection toward forsaking the fuzzy squall of his other projects isn’t a bummer; songs like “Drifter,” with its Jimmy Page-like meandering, and “Trailing Off,” with its feet planted firmly in the alt-rock guitar temple he pretty much acted as foreman for, are vibrant songs simply played at less-ear-blasting levels than is his usual custom. There is, however, a little something for even the most diehard decrier of Mascis’ softening up here.