Like a good wine, J. Mascis gets better with age
In some ways, Several Shades of Why sounds like the kind of record J. Mascis should have been making all along. The laid-back acoustic strumming, lazy guitar slides and general folk lethargy of the album seem to be a better fit than the music Mascis became famous for crafting during the ’90s.
Back then, the founder and front man of Dinosaur Jr. was busy constructing massive squalls of feedback, jangling, overdriven guitar and fuzzed-out bass lines that were barely held together by propulsive and highly compressed drums.
Mascis’ first solo effort, recorded with a handful of indie A-listers and post-rock pioneers, turns the volume knobs down to whatever the opposite of 11 is, and serves to clear up some of the cognitive dissonance that comes with hearing Mascis in conversation and then seeing him play a set with one of his earlier, heavier projects.
Here the famously taciturn Mascis stays mellow, trading amplitude for intimacy. There is plenty of breathing room on this record. Many songs have no percussion, like the album’s opener, “Listen to Me,” and the title track; at other times, as on “Not Enough,” Mascis keeps tempo with a solitary tambourine.
That isn’t to say there are no traces of the young Mascis. The mournfulness and ambivalence on Several Shades of Why conjures the dirty flannel, “Loser”-esque, ’90s ethos that Mascis—referred to as “The Original Slacker”—helped create.
However the brighter, lighter acoustic guitar sounds and stripped down arrangements—which Mascis will bring to The Crepe Place on May 3—betray the psyche of a man who has lived a little.
It is a familiar trajectory for a musician to take—leaving hard rocking youthful days behind to pursue subtler sounds and quiet wisdom. But Mascis, 45, says he isn’t following some predetermined track.
“It’s not like a progression, really,” he says. “It’s just, like, mining another interest—trying to get a different sounding record.”
Mascis has always been about making different sounding records. He grew up listening to ’80s hardcore, which he says appealed to him because it made him feel like he “knew about something that the other kids weren’t into.”
But even as he was listening to the caustic mutations of the evolving punk movement and playing with bands that aped that sound, there was something more tonally aware to the sludgy riffs and washed out melodies Mascis was writing.
With Dinosaur Jr., Mascis explains, he was really out to entertain himself. That meant never compromising on his vision of the music he wanted to create. “I was a pretty harsh critic as a kid,” he says.
That attitude certainly caused friction in Dinosaur Jr.—especially between Mascis and drummer Emmett Murphy, who left the band in 1993 only to return in 2005. However, Mascis’ uncompromising nature also drove him to create a musical aesthetic that helped define the grunge movement and can still be heard today, informing the music of Yuck and the late Jay Reatard.
If everything goes according to plan, Mascis hopes to follow in the footsteps of one of his biggest influences, Neil Young, as he ages.
“He seems like the only old guy who has kept it together and knows why he was good and what was good about him,” Mascis says, referring to Young. “He is still good, which seems tough.”
Tough though it may be, with his first solo effort Mascis makes staying relevant look effortless—a product of him tooling around with a few friends in his rehearsal space.
“I’m still just trying to entertain myself,” he explains.
J. Mascis plays at 9 p.m. Tuesday, May 3 at Crepe Place, 1134 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. $15/adv, $18/door. 429-6994.
Photo Credit: Timothy Herzog