J Mascis is a Massachusetts born songwriter, singer, drummer, producer and grey-haired guitar wizard. He’s most well known for his role as guitarist and vocalist in the alternative rock band Dinosaur Jr. With their signature deployment of heavy guitar effects, including feedback and distortion techniques, to J’s melodic guitar playing, they adopted a uniquely raw sound that would influence alternative stars of the 90s like Nirvana, Pixies and My Bloody Valentine. After his first solo album Several Shades of Why in 2011 and the announced release of his second album, Tied to A Star, in August of 2014, many were left wondering whether the gentler sound seen on Several Shades of Why would continue or whether the album would signify J’s return to his hardcore, distorted roots.
“Wide Awake” is among the lead tracks of Tied to A Star, a delicately sad but uplifting song completed with the added emotion brought by Cat Power’s raspy vocals. The song grows with J’s expressive yet technical guitar strumming, then softly ends with his signature distortion. But this is decidedly soft sonic manipulation that only adds to the vulnerable nature of the song. With regards to his solo work, J seems to have set aside the ferocity of his Dinosaur Jr sound for good.
The melodic direction of this album is not as innovative as it was on Several Shades of Why. Yet this doesn’t detract from the paired down confessional-style formula that really seems to suit J’s weathered voice. On “Every Morning” (the video for which sees J star as the head of the fictional religious guitar cult The Space Children of the Forest) his vocals really come together with one of the more overt uses of a distorted guitar solo on the album. His self-harmonies, achieved by overlaying two vocal parts, allow the various aspects of his distinct voice to come together expertly.
This pared-back sound hasn’t come without its challenges. J admitted to Paste magazine that playing the song ”Wide Awake” was a new experience: “It’s hard for me to play, because it’s finger-picking. And, you know, I’m not that good at that.” Peeling back the modesty, we see J continuing to take his work on this new musical direction with quiet confidence. Many artists attempt this to keep themselves “relevant”; however J just seems to want to enlighten us to the sort of music acoustic guitars can make.
J delighted many UK fans with his announcements of a UK tour in 2015. The quieter, melodic nature of the album is certainly reflected in the wise choice of intimate venues. Recent performances of tracks from the album have seen J play without so much as an amp for equipment, leaving fans expectant of a highly intimate performance. A welcome change, as intimacy was a factor that raucous Dinosaur Jr performances were usually lacking. This UK tour will see the Dinosaur Jr favourite continue to display his technical mastery, but with a warm yet entirely raw performance that’s likely to resonate with past and present fans alike.