Several Shades of Why
Sub Pop (no joke)
My friend Amy from high school was a really big fan of Dinosaur Jr. and the reason why I got into that band in the first place. I still remember hanging out with her and listening to Whatever’s Cool With Me and Green Mind in suburban basements in the depths of Northern Virginia. After she went to college, she being two years older than me, I kept up with J Mascis’s blisteringly loud, yet somehow totally sad rock music. I played the hell out of Where You Been and Without A Sound in her absence and it always made me remember her. By then I was hanging out with new friends in school and my musical tastes were developing more and more into my own. I was less influenced by what all the rad girls I used to hang out with were into. But to this day, I will remember when being punk was more a state of mind and a sense of your own community than a static quality of music or a some kind of political flag to fly. When I hear J. Mascis’s voice, I remember what it was like to be young.
But as I grew up, I just wasn’t feeling Dino too much. After Without a Sound, which was awkward at best, I let J walk into the wind. Besides, my favorite thing he ever did was the music on Gas Food Lodging a great film by Alison Anders that I can’t find anymore. It was subtle and amazing and fit perfectly with the desolate, desert backdrop of that amazing film. I paid way too much money for that soundtrack from Tower back in199whatever and I have no regrets about it. It also has a great Nick Cave song and features “Love” by Victoria Williams which stands as one of the greatest songs ever written. That soundtrack did things for me, all those untitled J Mascis guitar pickings softly caressing my pre-adult ears.
This whole solo album Several Shades of Why caught me by surprise, several weeks after it’s release. Topical I am not, but this album totally floored me this morning when, once again, my eMusic account was credited because I keep forgetting to suspend it. I’ve always liked J’s songs, but I’ve never liked the over-abundant use of amplification Mascis always insisted on. He was like a Neil Young on steroids with all those damn amps. And that’s not always problematic, amplification works well in grindcore, metal and some types of punk rock derivatives. But under all that power were songs that seemed like they’d be really awesome to listen to if only my ears weren’t being pummeled. Plus I liked them better than Neil Young songs. So in the first few notes of this, a mostly acoustic album, my life long wishes have been fulfilled.
If you hate J’s voice, stop and go buy something else. Because his lazy, soft rumbling is in full and beautiful effect here. No longer overshadowed by the rock and roll machine, the true beauty and genius of it is on display. Frankly, it hasn’t been this stunning since those early SST albums. The raw emotion now available in the songs is ever-present and the sadness comes through in an utterly depressing performance akin to Ian Curtis on a cloudy day.
Under the voice is a subtle, gritty acoustic guitar full of body and melody. It actually makes me think that if you’re a Paul Baribeau fan then you might find something stunning in this as well. The notes and chords ring out full and true and where he normally utilizes distortion to fill the room, now he relies on what we all know is great guitar playing. He smartly accents the entire album with light, but pretty electric guitar solos and accompaniments. This added layer of sound softly brushes and highlights the songs, giving the songs all the depth they need. Several guests appear, punching up the harmonies and adding a surprising element of collaboration that J is not really known for. The choices are spot on, J playing the confident roll of director and producer and allowing others talents to take the songs to places J wouldn’t alone.
At this juncture, in “indie rock” hypedom, J Mascis is a living institution. His work is well-regarded and respected outright. No one can really deny his contributions to teenage slackers all over the world. Further, his distinctive voice can not been impersonated, giving his work a singular depth and range that others wish they were. The man could always write great songs, but over the years, everything seemed to get louder and ultimately less fun to listen to. Several Shades of Why was totally unexpected, and unlike other post-rock dudes trying to play folk hero, J Mascis made a quiet album that is content with being a collection of great songs played well. Though it seems in construct to be nothing more than stripped away versions of what J’s done for years, it’s instead the opposite. Several Shades of Why is the showcase of the beauty that was always buried. I couldn’t be more pleased.