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By Brian Palmer
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Questions about the label, about the new album, about how he's spending his time now, about his current tour with bass workhorse Mike Watt (Minutemen, fireHOSE) . . . none of these elicit extended responses from Mascis, though he answers all of them directly. Not even fawning appreciation, it seems, stirs him to either joy or disgust. (When apprised of the esteem in which this writer holds Green Mind, his reaction is a quiet, if pleasurably surprised, "Oh. Great.") But the thing, see, is to accidentally find a topic that Mascis is willing to vibe on, and then let him go. And if you find that topic, he talks until he's finished; and when he's finished, he quits. Today, the key subject happens to be the studio Mascis built in Massachusetts, and the work he's been able to do there even when he was labelless.
"I don't know what I'd do with time off," he says to a question about his days since releasing More Light. "I've even started . . . recording another album since this one." (More Light was recorded in Mascis' home studio in Massachusetts between October '98 and June '99, before he signed with Ultimatum.) "I never . . . thought of myself as a person who would have a studio. But . . . there's always more stuff to buy, like . . . if you want to, if you want to spend money, there's always something more you can add."Chomp. "It's definitely . . . a pit. If you want it to be."
Working from his own studio apparently gave Mascis more time to record than with any album since Green Mind, Dino Jr.'s first major-label release. "Mostly I did the instruments . . . only there were some things Kevin [Shields, of My Bloody Valentine] played, on some of the tracks." (This loose method of description, incidentally, is mirrored in the album's liner notes, e.g., "This was a period of about seven weeks where Kevin was producing, playing some guitar, percussion and singing. Thom Monahan did yet more engineering," etc.)
Whether this freer production lent a happier vibe to the record, probably Mascis alone can say; and, like he sang on Where You Been, Mascis ain't sayin'. But there's no denying that More Light is, on the whole, one of the more upbeat and positive albums in his canon. Lines like "I gotta be grateful/I can" pop up frequently on More Light, sharing space with more plaintive tunes like "I'm Not Fine" and "Ground Me to You"; and the light, percussive shuffle of "Does the Kiss Fit" and "Waistin" are a far cry from the dour navel-gazing of which he's often accused.
Like fellow Massachusetts native Frank Black, Mascis is a practiced hand at mismatching lyrics and arrangements. He can wrap a tense line such as "Where's today, why's tomorrow feel/Like a whole new love, like a whole new deal?" in the hook-laden "Where'd You Go" so you don't know whether it's a cathartic bleat or an ecstatic affirmation. Mascis' talent for building tense, ambivalent songs, which ought to be a lot more widely recognized than it is, appears in abundance on More Light.
Mascis himself, though, doesn't seem to want to talk about the process much. "I think, just . . . each album is reflecting . . . the time it was written in. You just do what you do and . . . hope people like it." Pause. "I guess these songs were written . . . during the year before we recorded." Crunch.
Okay. So maybe that's all that needs to be said. Or maybe -- as with his explanation of the painting of the man in a hula skirt on the album's inner sleeve -- the truth is just a lot less cryptic than it appears to be. This image, done in blacks, whites, dirty orange and dark purple, seems evocative and mysterious when taken alongside the music, a cryptic visual commentary meant to suggest something subtle but profound about the songs contained on More Light.
"Oh . . . that's my dad, that guy in the hula skirt. Yeah. It's a painting my brother did. It's from a picture. This really old picture."
And, of course, there it is in the liner notes, way down, near the end: "Dad in Hula Skirt, Mike Mascis."
Sometimes -- not always, but sometimes -- the most obvious answers are the best ones.
More Light, J. Mascis' new release on Ultimatum, is a real good album.
This has been a review.