For his first proper solo LP Sub Pop somehow persuaded J Mascis to drop the fuzzy squall and guitar wizardry of Dinosaur Jr. to record a stripped back acoustic album, an album steeped in rootsy Americana and country-folk rock. Several Shades Of Why is the result – an unabashed success – a collection of romantic confessionals with weathered lyricism, ragged vocals and heart-tugging guitar; elements always evident in Dinosaur Jr. but laid bare for a fresh musical relationship.
Choosing to start with a previous solo(ish) project, J Mascis & The Fog, ‘Thumb’ recounts the heartache of Free So Free before opening new wounds with ‘Listen To Me’, pensively singing “Pain is what we do”. For the title-track ‘Several Shades Of Why’ Mascis introduces guitar pedal loops and plays up the Americana-lilt, acoustic but not unplugged there’s finger-plucking and warm strums along with heartfelt words, though typically ambiguous.
J is his usual laconic self; minimum banter, maximum character – a real-life Hanna-Barbera character complete with country drawl but minus a spit bucket. Aspirationally droll, his chat usually just peters off incoherently but he did manage to retell how Dino-drummer Murph would dominate tour bus listening with Led Zeppelin until one day he played something worse, Edie Brickell. So J played tribute by covering her song ‘Circle’, it’s defeatist nature in keeping with the lovelorn weariness of Several Shades Of Why.
While it’s understandable that touring acts play for the audience, Mascis won his over a long time ago so it’s a bit shame he didn’t take this opportunity to push his new record, his new direction; to present the album live in one piece – it’s a marvellous piece of work and it’s doubtful that he would lose any fans in doing so. Speaking about the album he recently told The Guardian that “It’s good to have certain restrictions sometimes, but it’s definitely more fun to play really loud, with distortion” and with that Dinosaur Jr. and guitar wizardry return and let’s be honest, it was spectacular as always. ‘Get Me’, ‘Not The Same’, ‘Repulsion’ and ‘Not You Again’ more than tick the nostalgia boxes; Mascis’ slacker riffage and guitarmanship reaffirm him as one of the greatest of our time.
Yer wan from Babes in Toyland once said that a J Mascis guitar solo was the rawest form of free expression – well someone like that, said something like that – anyway, this is true. More recently, also on the subject of J Mascis guitar solos, my friend said if anyone else did that you’d walk out – this also is true. You see you Mascis plays guitar. Really plays guitar. Not just solos, not just rhythm, not just lead. He plays every single bit, like no-one else can. But technical ability aside J Mascis can also pen a tune like no-one else can, dipping in a well that has no signs of running dry. Nostalgia trips are fine, but a bit tiring. If Bill Callahan, Jarvis Cocker or Mark Kozelek were touring new material, they would play nothing but that. What’s wrong with the now? Several Shades Of Why being now. Hearing Mascis play ‘Is It Done’, ‘Make It Right’ and ‘Can I’ captures an earnest side of our hero, the intimacy of these songs as expressive as any guitar solo. Maybe he thinks we’re not ready for that yet, maybe he’s not, so for now it’s ‘Little Fury Things’ we leave humming along to. Not a bad thing either.
Photos by Alan Moore.