[4 September 2014]
Like Kevin Shields and Dylan Carlson, J Mascis is an indie rock recluse known for taking cover behind immense walls of sound. During Dinosaur Jr.’s heyday in the late 1980s and ‘90s, Mascis’s brittle drawl bowed to the band’s feedback-drenched lo-fi squalor. That was all the better for launching his thunderous guitar work into indie rock orbit. On 2011’s Several Shades of Why, his first solo album since relaunching Dinosaur Jr. in 2007, he traded his axe for an acoustic and mixed his pipes to the front. He was no less adenoidal up close, but absent the amp noise, his voice projected surprising poise and poignancy, and his songwriting was a reminder that it wasn’t just Dinosaur Jr.’s aesthetic that made the band so iconic.
Tied to a Star continues where Several Shades of Why left off. The tactical advantage of going quiet after a life of loudness is that every added sound is heard. Mascis rarely rises above a quiet roar here, but the presence of electric instruments makes a definite difference. Consider the Mellotron hum that comps Mascis’s achingly gorgeous central guitar figure, and melds with the reverb on his voice, in “Me Again”. Or the driving force offered by modest drumwork on “Every Morning”, “Drifter”, “Heal the Star”, and “Trailing Off”. Or, the fuzzy drone that lends “Stumble” and “Come Down” a serrated edge. These textures empower Tied to a Star’s otherwise gentle melodies to actually say something—a struggle that’s animated indie rock for years.
Still, Mascis lets his guitar do the talking for him. The fragmented, lethargic protests of “Wide Awake”—“Come on over baby / Time to figure out / Dreaming of the reason / What will bring you around”—are carried by urgent picking that plays, like Cat Power’s intervening alto, the devoted voice of reason opposite his perennial man-child. Multitracked backup singers turn up throughout to amplify navelgazing resignations, pleas to jaded lovers, and watercolor scenes of seas and celestial bodies. Like footprints in sand, these lyrics, and Mascis’s delivery, don’t stay in the mind very long. Which keeps apace of Tied to a Star’s laconic protagonist, but more importantly, directs the ears back to the music.
Mascis’s nimble fingerwork really is something to behold; alone it could sustain a set of solid, low-stakes lullabies. But the shrewd deployment of full band momentum, usually around each track’s halfway point, lends dimensionality to Tied to a Star that transcends its humble tenor. “Heal the Star” and “Drifter” capture widescreen vistas through folk-rock workouts. “And Then” and “Trailing Off” meanwhile culminate in rootsy solos and sing-alongs that are more “Sultans of Swing” than “Boys Are Back in Town”, dramatic and stirring but just shy of rousing. In the end, though, all of Tied to a Star’s component parts bow to the guarded, noncommittal persona at the front, whose slacker foibles are no match for the seductive power of his playing. He might look like Bruce Vilanch cosplaying as Daenerys Targaryen, but his effortless way around a guitar melody is the stuff unwise crushes are made of.