Review Summary: Dino Jr. singer/guitarist's solo debut is a big change of direction, with largely admirable, if slight, returns.
J Mascis (known only to his mother as Joseph) has, in the words of erstwhile Canadian prime ministerial candidate Michael Ignatieff, had an interesting life. Emerging out of Amherst, Mass. in the mid-1980's, his band, Dinosaur Jr., arguably brought the guitar-as-guitar back into underground rock via Mascis' blisteringly untrained solos and defiantly fuzzy riffs, and their generally unkempt “slacker” aesthetic, complete with flannel, has been noted as an influence on the later, more commercially-successful, alt-rock groups of the early-90's. The band's 1987 album You're Living All Over Me is generally regarded as one of the high-water marks of 80's indie-rock, enough so that a “J Mascis for President” sign can be seen in the music video for Sonic Youth's “Teenage Riot”, and their later albums such as 1988's Bug and 1991's Green Mind have their own pleasures. As well, discord within Dinosaur Jr. between Mascis and bandmate/bassist Lou Barlow was, for a time, the gossipy toast of those too hip to read People, eventually leading to an acrimonious split, with Barlow founding fellow indie-rock stalwarts Sebadoh to pursue his own songwriting interests. The band did carry on without Barlow for a time, with ever-diminishing returns, but in 2007 the hatchet was buried and the group's Beyond release shocked many by living up to the standard set by their prime-period work, as did 2009's Farm. Oh, and if that's not enough, Dinosaur Jr. is one of the bands documented in Michael Azerrad's much-acclaimed memoir on the independent 80's music scene, Our Band Could Be Your Life.
So, of course, with this pedigree behind him, it was reasonable when expectations were rather high for Mascis' 2011 “solo debut”, a term which isn't exactly accurate due to the presence of the effectively-solo “J Mascis & The Fog” releases from 2000 and 2002, Several Shades of Why, and they were raised when the supporting cast of current indie characters appearing on the album in various instrumental and vocal capacities (Kurt Vile and Broken Social Scene's Kevin Drew being just two). A lot of the anticipation hinged on what, exactly, the album would sound like; fans had come to expect a certain general sound out of Mascis from his work with Dinosaur Jr., but would this be the kind of solo debut which merely mines the same ground as the artists' well-known work, perhaps with minor formula tweeks, or would it be bold and show a new side to Mascis' songcraft?
The answer to this depends on which angle you look at the release from; in terms of the song structures and lyrical content, this is Mascis in fine, if familiar, form. The songs are all built around bright, jangle-heavy riffs and strong chorus melodies, with different guitar lines often performing as counterpoints to one another, there's even a breakdown in the middle of “Make It Right” for some guitar-jamming and “Is It Done” contains a wonderful melodic solo in its second half. As for the words, well, Mascis has never been known as an especially great lyricist, and if a specific complaint can be made in regards to this album it's that many of the songs involve a lot of chorus or end-song repetition of uninteresting phrases. That said, the lyrics are meant to project a vague, emotional sense of ennui and self-questioning and in that sense they, along with Mascis' always-unique vocal delivery do their job.
However, the angle from which the album is most immediately apparent is its presentation in terms of instrumentation and volume, and it is here that it can be perceived as an about-face from Mascis' previous work and his fans' expectations.
In constrat to Lou Barlow's largely low-key, folky contributions to Dinosaur Jr.'s albums, and his later work the Sebadoh, a general perception existed around Mascis that he was the “rock” soul of the band, a true believer in the loud, guitar-heavy sound, but Several Shades of Why blows this assumption to pieces largely by having the sound and temperament more expected of a Barlow release. Mascis has often been compared to Neil Young, both for his raucous style of guitar-work and for his nasal vocals, and in that sense it could be said that Several Shades of Why is comparable to Young's Harvest Moon or Comes a Time albums; a rocker stripping down his songwriting and re-contextualizing it in a largely acoustic, percussion-free country/folk environment. Entire songs here pass with nary a fuzzbox in earshot, and when an electric guitar is heard, it's usually as melodic counterpoint to an acoustic (the solo in “Is It Done” is the exception here, not the rule). Furthermore, the overall instrumental palette is a big expansion from Dinosaur Jr.'s largely guitar-bass-drum set-up, with violin, piano and other non-rock sounds forming the core of the release. Most clearly this can be seen with songs like the high-spirited, country-toned “Not Enough”, which wins the album's “most memorable chorus” prize, while a song like “Can I” can be pictured as a typical Dinosaur Jr. number, with its halting rhythmic qualities, but gains an entirely new spin in these settings. With the exception of a few moments of showy guitar, this is largely a relaxed, casual release, and Mascis' vocals follow suit, he's not straining himself to be heard above a fuzz-infused din here, and the female backing vocals he's paired with often give the album a Gram Parsons-Emmylou Harris vibe.
The flip-side of this low-key nature is that the record often feels slight, and it's rather short 10-song running time is an additional testament to that. In addition, it's somewhat difficult not to imagine what these songs might have been like rendered in the more typical style by Mascis (maybe a later release could solve this conundrum?), and whether that may have served them better. This isn't a focused, sustained great album as You're Living All Over Me or Beyond are, but, then again, it was never meant to be. Depending on where things go from here, this will either be an interesting one-off side project of J Mascis and his buddies making some quiet tunes together, or it'll move the possibilities for the core Dinosaur Jr. albums into new areas in terms of sonic variety. Either way, this is an enjoyable release, meant mainly for those who are already fans and want to explore a great tunesmith's work in a new context; it wouldn't be the best introduction to J Masicis' work, but it'll definitely do for his unique voice in a pinch.