by Gillian G. Garr

J. Mascis is nothing if not versatile. Sometimes he’s raging in bands like Dinosaur Jr. and Witch. But it’s his softer side that gets exposed in Tied to a Star, his second album for Sub Pop; Mascis is longtime friends with the label’s vice president, Megan Jasper.

This acoustically driven album has minimal instrumentation; just guitar and piano, with a little help provided by friends like Cat Power’s Chan Marshall, Black Heart Procession’s Pall Jenkins, and Young@Heart Chorus’ Mark Mulcahy and Ken Maiuri (Mascis, who is on a US tour through the end of November, has said he’ll probably tour by himself).

The opening track, “Me Again,” has soothing guitar and Mascis’ voice moving between a world-weary low and a gentle falsetto high, as he coos the chorus, “Sentimental me.…” But the brisk strumming that kicks off “Every Morning,” coupled with the electric guitar line that sneaks in, also lets you know Mascis isn’t going to be totally restrained throughout the proceedings. His scraped voice on “Heal the Star” tells you exactly why Kurt Cobain liked him — he briefly flirted with the idea of asking Mascis to join Nirvana — and the instrumental romp at the end of the song is great fun.

JMascis-TiedToAStarMarshall turns up trading vocal lines on the ironically titled “Wide Awake” — because its dreamy feel winds you down instead of revving you up. “Stumble” starts off with a droney guitar, but its lyrical spirits are decidedly downcast; “And Then” has a warmer feel, but is just as wistful — and the vocal harmonies are particularly lush.

“Drifter” finally cuts loose after this spell of calm. It’s a great instrumental and provides the album with a welcome dose of energy. The album really comes to life when Mascis chooses to mix it up a bit.

“Trailing Off” starts out simply, but then builds to a great swirl of sound, rising and settling back down again, keeping you guessing. The bridge of “Come Down” features some lovely guitar picking, providing an elegant backdrop for Mascis’ falsetto. “Better Plane” wraps it up by treading a nice middle ground, nudging you along to the end of the line.

Tied to a Star could be a bit more dynamic. Not necessarily fast and furious; but the languid feel that permeates the album tends to keep it on a steady, even keel. It’d be nice if Mascis rocked the boat just a little more often.