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J Mascis
Tied To A Star Lior Phillips , August 27th, 2014 08:56

The first words you're likely to hear in relation to J Mascis' Tied To A Star are, "acoustic" and "country folk". Indeed, this album, co-produced with Dinosaur Jr. collaborator John Agnello, was made by using acoustic guitars, bass and drums – the instrumental signifiers that common for these genres. But, to call it "folk" or "acoustic" would be to foolishly imply that it's recorded in the laid back style often credited to these words. In actual fact the mood and delivery of Tied To A Star is as raw and immediate as Mascis' efforts with Dinosaur Jr, embracing ten unhurried and spacious songs about fleeting love and flailing happiness, all plucked and shredded by a beloved veteran spirit. It's certainly has a more "rock" temperament than anything else. So, any snide jabs about old indie-rockers turned limp and lame folk-singers need not apply. Yee hath no business firing at this star.

Across the majority of his career, Mascis has dealt exclusively in ciphers of gritty distortion, offset by resounding clatters of field snares and excess wattage. Here, the overall sound – warm and comforting – doesn't demand intense focus. One of the greatest pleasures of being spirited into Mascis' lonely solo-universe is in discovering that without much profusion, he is mumbling sharply self-affirming things to himself. This adds another layer to his appeal; we're suddenly coaxed in with a cracked kroan, promising to make you feel like the only one listening. Then you slowly start to realise that there's another guy here – and he's a bit of a cheeky smartarse.

Accordingly, this album moves at its own stately pace. Songs unfurl for three, or four, or five minutes without peaking dynamically; the tremendous tangle of finger picked guitars on the opener 'Me Again' queue up like progressive presets that Mascis lets unravel. It shifts between the agile acoustic chording we've come to expect, and wide-open billowing finger-picking that just hangs there while he reflects, "Sentimental me, getting all I see". Interacting with a piece of music so unfazed with interaction can be annoying sometimes, but like anything truly worthwhile in this world, Tied To A Star opens up slowly. Loving Mascis' music has become an exercise in patience, as he shrewdly sings on 'Stumble', "Don't expect me to move, don't expect it to show darling."

This is an artist fighting through his own skin, to not only strip away our beliefs of how he sounds, but also of the sort of music acoustic guitars can make. Consider the track 'Come Down' for a moment, as it summons chord progressions from several eras; the mid-tempo southern-country from The Marshall Tucker Band in the 70s, Leonard Cohen folk-rock during the 80s and some 90s Pearl Jam grunge-rock. He wields each string of his guitar so much so, that the sound becomes larger than any other musical component, forcing the crashing symbols to fade deeper into the background while the guitar hovers above, suspended in his musical ether and snatching all the attention. It's even more noticeable when the sullen volley of the cymbal-led drumkit lies beneath 'Every Morning' exquisite, tumbling electric guitar. Essentially this instrument becomes the rhythmic foundation. Here, Mascis offers one of his most immediate and playful hooks on the album too, as he utters, "Every morning makes it hard on me, then I wake to who I'll never be" before immediately refuting himself, "Then it hits me it's the life I lead."

While the lyrics are important, this is a sound first record, where each word is built upon the fundamental ideals he has for his music. 'Wide Awake' is a stretch of morning sunshine screaming through a window and the spot on the album where you want to be sitting beside him. The song's nostalgia is very particular, the gloom potent and pervasive. When you're mired in it, it doesn't feel suffocating or stilted - as acoustic ballads often seem - it sounds like it could be playing out entirely in Mascis' mind, the result being brave enough to confront the person whose responsible for opening his eyes. The melody manages to locate Chan Marshall's (Cat Power) heart and intertwine the two; "Twisted in the kinship," their voices sing, "Torn apart with lies." The music quickens, as if to rush past pain, but settles back down. In Mascis' world, there is enough time for everything.

If we were picking holes here, you might gently suggest Tied To A Star is not altogether captivating, but for serious fans of J Mascis' acoustic incline – it does deliver. His lack of clear narrative, comically dull song titles like 'And Then', 'Drifter', 'Heal The Star' and 'Come Down', still leaves J Mascis as something of a stranger to us. There's something unbearably brittle about hearing this frontman sounding so lost, a somewhat languid demeanour during 'Trailing Off' finds him begging, "how much can I take?" over frenzied drumming. 'And Then' straggling familiar turf by squeezing another drop of blood from 'Me Again' – these relaxed melodies belie the complexities beneath the surface. The closing protagonist of 'Better Plane' elects to take matters into her own hands, becoming poignant without becoming bathetic. That's just it; the sound floats above you, but it never ties you down.