Musician, singer/songwriter and producer J Mascis, best known as the frontman for Dinosaur Jr., has been quietly prolific. In addition to his work with Dinosaur Jr., whose original members regrouped in 2007, Mascis released records with The Fog, Witch, Velvet Monkeys, Gobblehoof and, most recently, Sweet Apple. After his largely ignored 1996 solo acoustic album, Martin + Me, one might not expect Mascis to return to a stripped-down, folk-based foundation for his third proper studio solo full-length, Several Shades of Why. Perhaps audiences are ready to listen to some of his finest work as a songwriter.
Prompted by longtime friend (and Sub Pop VP) Megan Jasper, Mascis embarked on an acoustic guitar-driven project that excluded drums. "It was a specific decision to not have drums. Usually, I like to have them," said Mascis in a label press release (written by rock scribe Byron Coley). "Going drum-less pushes everything in a new direction, and makes it easier to keep things sounding different."
Mascis has often been compared to the plugged-in Neil Young, especially in respect to his explosive electric guitar blasts. This time around, Mascis combines Young's acoustic side with the industrial, metallic acoustic sonics of Thurston Moore's Trees Outside of the Academy. This new sound highlights Mascis' growth as producer, arranger and songwriter, in addition to his superb execution as a musician. Allowing space to pervade, he offers a different (and surprising) aspect of beauty.
The title track, a '60s British folk-influenced number, is perhaps his most elegant. Excellent acoustic guitar lines, a nearly upbeat, catchy melody and majestic violin parts provided by guest Sophie Trudeau (from A Silver Mount Zion) are set against melancholic lyrics about a relationship gone sour. Additional contributions come from Band of Horses' Ben Bridwell, Pall Jenkins of Black Heart Procession, Matt Valentine and Kurt Vile, among other guests. Several Shades of Why is clearly Mascis' record, however, with his acoustic guitar, aching vocals and occasional fuzzy lead electric guitar front and center.
In contrast to his earlier acoustic outing, which included a smattering of covers (songs by The Smiths, Carly Simon and Lynyrd Skynyrd), Several Shades of Why consists of all-original compositions (a majority of the songs were recently penned, according to Mascis). The record exemplifies his ingenious way of incorporating influences and making them his own -- from the David Crosby-tinged pop/folk of "Not Enough" to elements of ‘70s heavy metal in the ballad "Too Deep." Several Shades of Why shows a raw side to Mascis that reveals a shy artist's vulnerability and beauty, resulting in a brave work.