J Mascis has always made his name on ear-splitting guitar riffs and avalanches of distortion. Whether with Dinosaur Jr., the rock‘n’roll behemoth for which he’s most famous, or the many side projects and collaborations he has worked on over the years, the sheer volume of his music tends to be the abiding, bludgeoning theme. But now we’re meeting a new side of the veteran guitar god – a gentle, delicate and altogether more acoustic Mascis.
Several Shades of Why, Mascis’ first fully solo record, has been in gestation since the recording of J Mascis and The Fog’s 2002 album Free So Free. Perhaps the delay was a slight reticence to strip back the fuzz and lay bare his voice, accompanied by little more than an acoustic guitar and a few trusty friends (Kurt Vile, Band of Horses’ Ben Bridwell and Sophie Trudeau of A Silver Mt. Zion among them). If that’s the case, he needn’t have worried. Several Shades of Why is an evocative collection of simple, elegant campfire songs, and proof that Mascis’ appeal lies in solid songcraft rather than just raw power.
One of the most charming things about Dinosaur Jr. is the ever-present sense of youthful abandon despite the band’s advancing years. Well, the abandon may have been tempered on Several Shades of Why, but Mascis’ eternal youth has survived intact. Tracks like Not Enough and Listen to Me have a wistful edge, but they’re joined by the kind of freewheeling strumming and direct, plaintive lyricism that makes them more reminiscent of the first fumblings of a teenager in love than the concerns of a 45-year-old rock legend.
Is It Done finds Mascis’ weathered voice partnered perfectly by the honeyed backing vocals of Bridwell, and the gorgeous, idyllic title-track seems to radiate the half-remembered sunshine of some halcyon adolescence. The clouds encroach on the clear skies a little towards the end of the album with the brooding Can I, but if you’re revisiting your teenage years you can’t avoid a little angst.
All in all, Several Shades of Why drifts by like the caress of a summer breeze, and when the sun finally comes out, you could do a lot worse than finding a park and letting it roll over you.
It s all but inconceivable that J Mascis requires an introduction. In the
quarter-century since he founded Dinosaur Jr., Mascis has created some of the era s signature songs, albums and styles. As a skier, golfer, songwriter, skateboarder, record producer, and musician, J has few peers. The laconically-based roar of his guitar, drums and vocals have driven a long string of bands Deep Wound, Dinosaur Jr., Gobblehoof, Velvet Monkeys, the Fog, Witch, Sweet Apple and he has guested on innumerable sessions. But Several Shades of Why is J s first solo studio record, and it is an album of incredible beauty, performed with a delicacy not always associated with his work.
Recorded at Amherst Massachusetts Bisquiteen Studios, Several Shades... is nearly all acoustic and was created with the help of a few friends. Notable amongst them are Kurt Vile, Sophie Trudeau, Kurt Fedora, Kevin Drew of Broken Social Scene, Ben Bridwell-Band of Horses, Pall Jenkins-Black Heart Procession, Matt Valentine-The Golden Road-, and Suzanne Thorpe of Wounded Knees. Together in small mutable groupings, they conjure up classic sounds ranging from English-tinged folk to drifty, West Coast-style singer songwriterism. But every track, every note even, bears that distinct Mascis watermark, both in the shape of the tunes and the glorious rasp of the vocals.
Megan from Sub Pop has wanted me to do this record for a long time, J says. She was very into it when I was playing solo a lot in the early 2000s, around the time of the Fog album came out of that.
There are a couple of songs that are older, but the rest is new this year. And it s basically all acoustic. There s some fuzz, but it s acoustic through fuzz. There re no drums on it, either. Just one tambourine song, that s it. It was a specific decision to not have drums. Usually I like to have them. But going drum-less pushes everything in a new direction, and makes it easier to keep things sounding different.
The album comes out around the time of South by Southwest, so I guess I ll play there. It would be cool to have a band, but I don t know. Some of the songs have a lot of musicians on them. I might start out solo then add people as it goes along. I don t like playing solo so much. It s weird. You have to try and keep the show going. If you break a string you have to come up with banter, like Richard Thompson does. He s the master of the one man show. For me it s stressful.
There is little evidence of stress on Several Shades of Why. The title track is a duet with Sophie Trudeau s violin recalling Nick Drake s work at its most elegant. Not Enough feels like a lost hippie-harmony classic from David Crosby s If I Could Only Remember My Name. Is It Done rolls like one of the Grisman/Garcia tunes on American Beauty. Very Nervous and Love has the same rich vibe as the amazing ruralist side of Terry Reid s The River. And on and on it goes. Ten brilliant tunes that quietly grow and expand until they fill your brain with the purest pleasure.
What a goddamn great album.