Review Summary: the pain is there to greet me ~ the pain is there to feed
For all that’s been said about Dinosaur Jr.’s new millennium resurgence and the three excellent records it’s borne, the chatter surrounding J Mascis’ low key solo project has been comparatively sparse. It’s perfectly understandable, really. On paper, ‘acoustic’ music from a man renowned for distorted Jazzmaster wizardry at ear-splitting volumes is a tough sell; doubly so when factoring in his distinctive sleepy drawl. By this token, 2011’s Several Shades of Why
was something of a revelation. Stripped of the fuzz and distortion powering Dinosaur’s music, J’s talent as a tunesmith shone through unimpeded; that drawl improbably yet ideally suited to his elegant acoustic arrangements. What all these things gave us was a superb and warm record every bit the equal of the ‘new’ Dinosaur. Consider this and it’s not really such a stretch: Mascis’ gift for songwriting and melody, though not always at the forefront of that band’s recorded output, plays a major part in elevating them above the pack.
At first glance Tied to a Star
appears cut from the same cloth as Several Shades of Why
, yet after living all over me for a few weeks it has established itself as the slightly weirder, heavier little brother to that album. When I say heavier I don’t mean that this is a particularly ‘dark’ record. Like its predecessor it is immediate and familiar from the beginning. No, this heaviness is felt rather than heard; a pervading uneasiness anchored to the navel-gazing insecurity in J’s voice and words. It’s there from the start of ‘Me Again’ and rears its head frequently through the album’s forty minute runtime. ‘Dark expanses broken down / hard to function in this town,’
he sings on side B highlight ‘Trailing Off’, ‘I left tired and unsure / fidgety and insecure’.
The song itself is gorgeous, of course - an accurate microcosm of the record as a whole - J’s repeated pleas of ‘how much can I take?’
going unanswered amid the pounding drums and searing electric guitar lead at its crushing climax. It’s a thrilling moment to be sure, a forceful reminder that while J’s words may lack confidence his jams sure as hell don’t. There’s good reason for those inverted commas around the word ‘acoustic’ up there, that is, Tied
’s moon is far more Harvest
than it is Pink
To that end, each track here is built around a sturdy acoustic framework and further augmented by either piano, drums, or electric guitars. Mascis balances these elements with a discerning hand, knowing precisely when to ramp things up and, just as importantly, when to let them breathe. This is a record that wants your attention. It’s accessible, sure, and will satisfy in a reluctant way if forced to tag along in the background of your everyday life. What it really wants though, is to play by its own rules on its own unhurried schedule. I won’t say these songs meander – the guitar playing is far too fleet-fingered for that – but they move at their own pace, Mascis revealing more layers only when he’s damn well ready. This in turn imbues Tied to a Star
with a certain mystique. It’s there in the piano entwining ‘Me Again’ after that jaw-dropping bridge, and again in that muffled guitar growling like a caged animal out back of ‘Heal the Star’ and ‘Come Down’; subtleties that give these songs richness, wholeness. J’s mastery over the build and release of tension gives him the freedom to explore and fully flesh out each idea in a manner that both captivates and rewards the listener; exponentially so with each additional play.
Of course, this is possible only because the core ideas are so sound, the melodies and guitar playing so good
; from the nimble fingerpicking on ‘Wide Awake’ to the cheerful soloing on ‘Every Morning’. Better still is the incisive use of effects to create all that space on unassuming gem ‘And Then’. Eminent virtuoso that he is, Mascis plays in a fashion that makes this all sound utterly effortless; the danger being that on rare occasions a song isn’t up to scratch, e.g. ‘Stumble’, it comes across a tad careless. Certainly it’s a delicate balance: on the flipside is the exotic ‘Drifter’ interlude, too heavyhanded in execution to justify more than half its length. Granted, these are minor gripes. Seven or eight times out of ten here he knocks it out the fucking park. Following those slight disruptions the final three songs lock into a powerful groove exemplifying everything I love about this album. It’s all here: the hope and the doubt, the comfort and the ache; and on closer ‘Better Plane’ when J asks ‘are we finally here? did we disappear?’
before ripping one of his most devastating solos since ‘Pick Me Up’, well, it’s hard to imagine a more fitting finale. Brilliant.