It’s impossible not to associate J Mascis with massive walls of distortion and feedback, wailing solos and fuzzbox crunch. The Dinosaur Jr. frontman is the first indie rock guitar hero and remains the most iconic axeman in independent rock music. Certainly there are other such giants, like Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo, whose styles lean much more avant garde, or Built to Spill’s Doug Martsch, who, himself, is a disciple of Mascis. But J is on his own pedestal, having banked nearly three decades of raucous noisemaking in Dinosaur Jr., stoner rock outfit Witch and classic rock powerhouse Sweet Apple. So an album of gentler acoustic material likely isn’t what anyone might have expected from Mascis’ first solo album, but that’s exactly what the legendary performer delivered.
Several Shades of Why, Mascis’ first album for Sub Pop, finds the songwriter and six-stringer toning down the noise and feedback and pushing aside the meaty rock ‘n’ roll with which he’s long been synonymous. Despite his background, though, nobody should be entirely shocked by this move. Mascis did release Martin + Me in 1996, which found him reworking Dinosaur Jr. songs into stripped-down acoustic pieces, as well as playing covers of songs by The Smiths and Carly Simon. Though that was essentially an anomaly at the time, Several Shades is a natural extension of that album, only one with all new material. Here, Mascis keeps his arrangements simplified, sometimes consisting of just acoustic guitar, sometimes with added piano, violin or flute, as well as guest vocals from Kurt Vile, Broken Social Scene’s Kevin Drew, Band of Horses’ Ben Bridwell and Black Heart Procession’s Pall Jenkins.
Though Several Shades of Why may not have the immediate explosion of recent albums like Farm or Beyond, it’s nonetheless a strong showcase for Mascis’ songwriting, which is a strength of his that deserves as much recognition as his instrumental skills. The 10 songs here are simple, but gorgeous, speaking for themselves without the need for added effects or noise. Opening track “Listen to Me” begins quietly but powerfully, as Mascis shifts his lines from “I can’t wait to see you” to “I can’t wait to be you” over stoic and gorgeous minor chords. The title track showcases Mascis’ more delicate fingerpicking style, made all the more gorgeous with the addition of Sophie Trudeau’s stunning violin. And the backing vocals of Vile, Bridwell and Drew turn “Not Enough” into an upbeat, hand-clapping campfire singalong.
There’s nothing fussy or overworked about Several Shades of Why, nor is there anything bombastic or explosive. Rather, it’s a simple, pretty album that strips away all the distortion and volume, leaving nothing more than a batch of great songs performed in a delicate and restrained manner. While Mascis has more than proven himself a total badass as he grows ever closer to 50, it’s encouraging to see that he’s just as comfortable with a quieter, relaxed sound, allowing the beauty of his songs to roam free without subjecting them to total sonic obliteration.
Video: J Mascis – “Not Enough”
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.