Graded on a Curve:
J Mascis, Heavy Blanket

J Mascis plugs in and freaks out on Heavy Blanket. A blissfully heavy slab of instrumental scorch, it’s an expansive yet tidy expression of one aspect of his musical personality. It’ll likely appeal to only a portion of Dinosaur Jr.’s fanbase, but it’s no less interesting for that.

In case you didn’t already know, J Mascis is quite the adept guitarist. In fact, along with Thurston Moore, he served the role of guitar hero to a late-‘80s u-ground rock scene that was still close enough to its punk roots to consciously disdain the concept of string heroics as antithetical to what made the period’s hip crux of bands bubbling under the radar such a supreme kick.

That is, if Moore was Jimi Hendrix then Mascis was Jimmy Page and most of the wigs getting flipped by their abilities, if presented with such an analogy, would’ve likely sneered in disgust and berated the person making such an uncouth comparison as a total, um, dinosaur.

Yes, some folks comprehended the significance of the moniker Dinosaur (the Jr. being added after some real dinosaurs from the San Fran psyche scene demanded they change it), but for most listeners back then the name was simply a name, and indeed most of those same listeners didn’t know or particularly care that Dinosaur Jr. soaked up influence from such relics as Crazy Horse, Sabbath, and the general blunt sludginess of power-trio rock.

Now, the above analogies are extremely loose ones meant to represent importance rather than specific stylistic similarities, for as one listen to Hendrix and Moore proves, the two are highly dissimilar. And Mascis for that matter doesn’t aurally reflect Page, or Clapton, or Jeff Beck. He does recall Neil Young in his roughest period with Crazy Horse mixed with the sort of head down, back to the audience heaviness that spread like a rogue STD in a free-love commune from ’69 to roughly ’73 or so.

But give that description to someone who’s never actually heard any of J Mascis’ stuff, then play them a few choice cuts from either incarnation of Dinosaur’s original lineup, and the difference between what they imagined and what they actually heard will likely be quite large. This helps make a great case for the crème of the ‘80s u-ground guitarists (a group that also includes Black Flag’s Greg Ginn, Minutemen’s D. Boon, Big Black’s Steve Albini, and Mission of Burma’s Roger Miller) as standing up tall in terms of individuality next to the late-‘60s team of string warriors.

In the case of Sonic Youth, this individualistic streak is unsurprising, for that band is maybe the apex of rock music made by actual record collectors. But in the case of Mascis, I’ve been consistently struck by how successfully he’s avoided falling into a retrograde zone. His obvious inspirations are unchanged, and yet while his most impressive, groundbreaking work is behind him, he’s retained his vigor in both performance and recording, surviving a bout of post-grunge ‘90s celebrity with no noticeable side effects.

A big reason for Mascis’ sustained distinctness from his influences and the continued creative spark in his work boils right down to punk rock. I know that upon my first hearing of Dinosaur, specifically the “Repulsion” 7-inch, I made no immediate connection to Crazy Horse and Sabbath. A helping hint was provided in the liner notes to Homestead Records’ The Wailing Ultimate, a compilation LP that also included “Repulsion,” and where the band was described as “ex-hardcores that like to jam.”

That liner blurb on ol’ Dino also served as my introduction to Deep Wound, the suburban Massachusetts hardcore band that’s taken on legendary status as the first group of Lou Barlow and J Mascis. Over time Dinosaur’s HC pedigree became general knowledge: their cover of “Chunks” by Boston fly-by-nights Last Rights, J’s professed love in interviews of the UK band Discharge, and the bootlegging and eventual legit issue of the Deep Wound discography, a big beautiful throttling blur of a thing, as the nooks and crannies of hardcore gained retrospective value and respect.

And it became apparent that while what Dinosaur’s music was no longer appropriately categorized as punk, it was also impossible to remove vital elements of the music that shaped them from their aesthetic, and it was why so many crabby observers refused to accept that You’re Living All Over Me was a natural extension of elements derived from Everybody Knows This is Nowhere and Paranoid.

Hell, by the ‘90s there was a certifiable ton of bands that had strapped on the mantle of able musicianship while retaining a connection to punk’s leveling globular impetus. One such example of this would be the obscure but very worthwhile instrumental compilation Guitarrorists, released in 1991 on Terry Tolkin’s short-lived but quite interesting No. 6 label. It lined up twenty-six tracks from as many contributors, one of which belonged to none other than J Mascis.

If deep down always connected to his roots, J’s use of Dinosaur as essentially a solo vehicle that had a fleeting pop-chart flirt caused many to knee-jerkily disassociate him with the movement from which he was creatively spawned. This was a big mistake, for the 21st Century found Mascis easing into his status as a not very talkative sleepy-lidded elder statesman of indie-rock, fronting a smaller scaled band The Fog as well as working in groups such as The Witch and Sweet Apple. But reconvening with his original Dino partners was the icing on the cake, knocking out two expectations-exceeding albums and some even stronger tours.

Heavy Blanket is J’s latest effort, and it’s rather resistant to broad description and analysis. The self-titled LP finds Mascis shredding in the studio across six instrumental tracks, all of them basically templates for extended soloing. The press bio concocts an entertaining if obviously bogue story about J stumbling upon some high school band mates and, based upon an old demo tape they made, rerecording those tunes to unexpectedly high quality results. Um, yeah. In reality, the music is likely to be all Mascis via overdubbing; he was the drummer in Deep Wound, as well as Gobblehoof and Upsidedown Cross.

The fun fictiveness is understandable. A bio that stuck to the bare facts would be a short, uninspiring read. But interestingly, the creative untruths connect the music on Heavy Blanket, a sound that many would consider antithetical to the oft rudimentary nature of punk, to 1984, a point when Mascis’ was still running roughshod over the Massachusetts’ HC circuit in Deep Wound. Indeed, the bio directly references that band.

These fabrications unknowingly reinforce what becomes clear after time spent with Heavy Blanket, namely that if on the surface indulgent of Mascis’ boldest desires of heaviosity circa the early ‘70s, it is also indicative of the guy’s continued relevance as an exponent of contemporarily substantive din. And the whole racket may not be overtly punk in form, but it holds an abundance of what some describe as “punk in spirit”.

This is a cool development. Much as I liked the largely acoustic and tangibly laid-back atmosphere of last year’s Sub Pop outing Several Shades of Why, I also couldn’t help having mixed feelings over my impression that the man was mellowing considerably with age. Heavy Blanket makes clear that he holds no inhibitions about plugging in and throwing down. And as a display of such, it’ll obviously appeal to a fraction of Dinosaur Jr.’s legion of fans, a huge portion of which require the melodiousness that’s become a trademark of said band, not to mention lyrics and the instantly recognizable sound of J’s voice.

But the fraction that will welcome Heavy Blanket’s existence should be blown away but good. Throw in Savage Pencil cover artwork and the whole package feels a little bit like a project issued by the Twisted Village label around ’92 or so. It doesn’t stand as tall as the Fog stuff or the intense beauty of Mascis’ most unheralded work, ‘05’s J Mascis + Friends Sing + Chant for Amma, but it’s not far behind. Long may he wail.

Graded on a Curve: B+

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