J Mascis

What Do We Do Now

There’s always been something slightly wrong about the kind of rock J Mascis makes – so much the better, says Robert Barry

I have a confession to make: I have this aversion to men singing. Not always, mind. But generally, as a rule, I would prefer they didn’t. There’s a whole bit in Seinfeld where Jerry gets invited to go see Mel Tormé (“the velvet fog”) sing at a benefit dinner. “I can’t watch a man sing a song,” Jerry recoils with a grimace. “They get all emotional, they sway. It’s embarrassing.” He’s right. It is. But not, for some reason, J Mascis.

Look, I know. It’s ridiculous. By any fair standard, Mascis’s voice should surely be judged up there with the most embarrassing of all time. This weird sort of squawk, like a cartoon bird in terrible pain. The guy sounds out of tune even when he’s not. But the ear is a capricious organ.

If I’m honest I don’t really like rock music very much either. I mean, obviously not the whole of the “rock/pop” section of the record shop (though that’s rarely the first place I look). But that kind of rockin’ rock music. You know. Rock music that rocks. Guitar solos, in particular, I can’t abide. And again, Mascis does all that stuff – especially here. What Do We Now is really a very full-throated rock record, like one of those things by Neil Young or Led Zeppelin or Pearl Jam or Lynyrd Skynyrd or something. There are guitar solos everywhere.

But there has always been something kind of off about the kind of rock you get from Mascis. You can’t quite imagine it blasting out of a truck or playing over the credits in a Tom Cruise picture. No tubs are thumped. No fists are pumped. No-one is going to fly into a war zone blasting this. You would lose. Even the guitar solos conjure less the cliff-edge and stiff breeze of Slash’s bit in the Guns ‘n’ Roses videos; more like someone in a confined space wrangling with something. Like a man in a cupboard with a raccoon and a live wire.

That kind of wild scree that once characterised Dinosaur Jr records is largely gone now. What Do We Now is a record of beautifully put-together songs played on an acoustic guitar then beefed up by a band (mostly Mascis himself on overdubs, plus a little piano from The B52s’ Ken Mauri and some slide guitar played by Toronto musician Matthew “Doc” Dunn). But the title recalls the end of Mascis’s own foreword to Nick Attfield’s (2011) Thirty-Three-and-a-Third book on You’re Living All Over Me: “Where do you go from there?” He seems to have been asking himself variations of that question for the last thirty-five years now. Meanwhile, he just sort of carries on, writing these neat little songs the way a carpenter makes chairs. Which isn’t very rock at all, when you think about it.

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