J Mascis has been making music since the early 80s. Both SPIN and Rolling Stone have placed him in “top 100 guitarists of all time” lists, and in 2007 Fender released a signature Jazzmaster guitar he helped design. As the lead singer/guitarist/songwriter for indie-rock institution Dinosaur Jr, his influence on indie music has been immeasurably significant, but ask ten randoms on the street who he is, and you’ll be lucky if even one of them has the slightest inkling. For almost three decades Mascis has managed to skirt just outside fullblown household-name superstardom, which seems to suit his laid back demeanour just fine. Tied to a Star is his second solo studio album, preceded by 2011’s Several Shades of Why.
I will shed any pretense of objectivity right off the bat; the year I started high school my older brother moved overseas, leaving several Dinosaur Jr. albums along with the rest of his CDs for me to digest. Those albums had a huge impact on my musical development, and “Freak Scene” off 1988’s Bug was the first song I learned to cover with a band. So when I was afforded the opportunity to review Tied to a Star, I felt quite reasonably stoked. I thought it would be cool to ask my brother – being wiser and more endowed with experience than myself – what he thought of the album. His response was so illuminating and judisciously spot on that I knew I would have to either plaigarise or extensively quote the damn thing. Having chosen the latter option, I now present what he had to say in its almost unadulterated entirety:
“My first thought when listening to “Tied to a Star” was that it sounds like a mellowed out, acoustic Dinosaur jr (as I knew them from the 80’s/90’s), no surprises there. I didn’t have expectations otherwise, and keeping in mind the adage that it’s admirable to do less, if what you do is done really really well. J Mascis is the consummate slacker-punk/guitar nob. He doesn’t seem to have evolved much, sonically, from the mid-nineties, which I think is admirable. He’s not trying to keep up, to be trendy or relevant or avant-garde or whatever, he just hunkers down in his home studio with his guitars and does his thing (so I imagine) – he is quite comfortable in his niche. Multi-textured acoustic guitars, beefy, sloppy wailing solos, big drums, shaky, emotive, and obscure vocals.
I was pleased to hear the acoustic guitar heavily profiled on this album, as well as smatterings of piano here and there. I always thought J, as a songwriter, was far more limber and melodic than much that came out of the sludgy grunge scene he presaged; I loved how Dino Jr could transition between hardcore punkrock intensity, Sabbath-esque riffage, and beautiful, folky moments of fragile Neil Youngian tenderness and angst. The post-“Green Mind” 90’s albums showed a proclivity for Neil-infused brooding balladry and folk-rock, as well as an anthemic classic rock aesthetic which Mascis’ prodigious guitar soloing showed was present in latency from the very beginning. I wish I could comment on the later 90’s and post-millennial reunion albums, as well as Mascis’ other solo records. I listened to a bit of “You’re Living All Over Me,” D-Jr’s second album, to get a sense of contrast. “Tied to a Star” is unmistakably Mascis, even 27 years later. He presents, as ever, an effortless gift of melody, which seems to owe more to 70’s folk-rock and even singer-songwriter than to the hardcore scene of the 80’s that he emerged from. The song arrangements are fluid and evolving, always keeping the listener interested yet never offending with either over-simplicity or undue complexity or dissonance, and always delivering fail-safe hooks at the right moment. His voice sounds virtually unchanged in the past 30 years, shifting from trademark fragile drawl to reverb-drenched falsetto, which, presented in this warm acoustic context, is redolent of Bon Iver’s “For Emma” recordings.
“Tied to a Star” is a shimmering and autumnal acoustic album, and the ambivalent angst that characterized the early Dino Jr material has mellowed into a tender and human plea, for connection, for clarity. I can’t help but considering his recent religious conversion, to becoming a devotee of Amma (Mata Amritanandamayi, the “hugging saint”), and wondering how this plays out in his contemporary output. Is she the “star” that he is tied to? The raga-esque jam at the end of “Heal the Star” shows a definite Indian influence. Though the lyrics are obscure, there seems to be calls of spiritual resignation, devotion, confession throughout.”
In addition – and this is something that frequently gets overlooked in a review – the cover art, by Marq Spusta, really wraps the whole package in just the right feel of whimsy, wonder, and melancholy. Though no revelation, Tied to a Star is a great work by a master craftsman, and perfectly suited to chill, post-festival season recuperation.