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J Mascis - Elastic Days Music Album Reviews

The return of Dinosaur Jr. as a trio forced the singer to find a new avenue for his softer side and acoustic explorations. His third album in that series arrives at perfectly refined folk-rock.

Dinosaur Jr. didn’t reunite so much as reset. Since the mid-2000s, J Mascis, Lou Barlow, and Murph have essentially picked up where they left off after 1988’s college-radio touchstone Bug, reasserting themselves as indie rock’s most ferocious and slackadasically tuneful power trio. But their reconciliation erected a wall around the more exploratory path that Dinosaur Jr. had taken during the 1990s, after Barlow’s acrimonious departure allowed Mascis to seize full creative control of the band (and all the mellotrons and timpanis that went with it). In that time, Dinosaur Jr. had effectively become a solo vehicle for Mascis, who handled the production and most of the instrumentation. But with the original lineup back in action—and more prolific than ever—Mascis has respected the fact that the musical alchemy he shares with Barlow and Murph is its own special thing. He has directed his more sophisticated songcraft into a parallel series of solo albums, favoring low-key acoustic arrangements that allow him to both simmer down and branch out.

Mascis’ third such album, Elastic Days, reunites much of the supporting cast he corralled for 2014’s Tied to a Star, including pianist Ken Maiuri, former Black Heart Procession singer and guitarist Pall Jenkins, and Miracle Legion leader Mark Mulcahy. Their reappearance suggests that, for Mascis, these solo albums aren’t an unplugged antidote to Dinosaur Jr. but instead the manifestation of an equally considered alternate vision. It’s taken some fine-tuning to get there: 2011’s Several Shades of Why was achingly intimate, while the more lively Tied to a Star was liable to drift into hacky-sack psych. With Elastic Days, he’s arrived at the sort of refined folk-rock that the ’90s iteration of Dinosaur Jr. probably would’ve made had it continued veering toward the middle of the road.

For the generation of Dinosaur Jr. fans who discovered the band by seeing the video for “Get Me” on “120 Minutes” in the early ’90s, Elastic Days will feel like a homecoming. As that song proved, Mascis’ perpetually pained moan was always begging for some healing harmonies. On Elastic Days’ beautifully breezy opener “See You at the Movies,” Jenkins fills the role Tiffany Anders did 25 years ago, his plaintive backing vocals wrapping around Mascis’ wounded croon like a wool toque. Jenkins is one of many guest singers called on to nurse Mascis’ bruises: “I Went Dust” is a lovely duet with Zoë Randell of Aussie indie-folk duo Luluc, where a lick straight out of Jimmy Page’s acoustic playbook punctuates each crestfallen line. During the gently galloping country-rocker “Picking Out the Seeds,” Mascis’ underrated falsetto gets a boost from Devadas, the Brooklyn composer who’s previously joined Mascis for occasional forays into Hindu spirituals.

But as with any Mascis release, one voice resounds louder than all: his guitar solos. Naturally, his playing here is more tempered and soothing than the typical Dinosaur Jr. face-melter. But the function of his guitar solos remains less decorative than demonstrative. Almost every single song J Mascis has written over the past 30-plus years sounds like an excerpt from the same intensely personal, painfully awkward exchange, where the averted gazes and shrugged shoulders say more than the limited words. The solos on Elastic Days play the role of emotional interpreter, giving Mascis’ notoriously vague lyrics a more acute, deeply felt sense of ache and distress.

As such, pretty much every song here is a build-up to the moment when Mascis inevitably lets loose. The tunes don’t all sound the same; there’s a canyon between the campfire serenity of the winsome title track and the freewheeling “Sometimes,” where an accelerated back half practically turns it into a folk-rock “Feel the Pain.” But Elastic Days is the sort of record where the album sequence feels immaterial, where there’s no discernible dramatic arc. Each track functions as its own ecosystem, undergoing the same cycle of welling up and gushing out to achieve the right balance of musical clarity and emotional confusion. As Mascis sings on “See You at the Movies,” “Finding you is easy/Finding me is hard.” On Elastic Days, he’s somehow as accessible but elusive as ever.

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