Under Review: J Mascis – Several Shades Of Why & David Lowery – The Palace Guards

When you hear that a band’s lead singer is making their solo debut, there are a number of important questions to consider. Will the record sound like one that the main band could’ve made? If so, are there any stylistic changes that help to make this departure relevant and necessary? Finally, is the resulting album strong enough to stand alongside the output of the proper band, or is it a disposable adventure in vanity? For Dinosaur Jr leader J Mascis and Camper Van Beethoven/Cracker frontman David Lowery, those questions can be answered in a number of difficult, unflattering ways. Both of the singers’ new records, Mascis’ Several Shades Of Why and Lowery’s The Palace Guards, mark their debuts as solo performers (though neither man’s bands have broken up). I decided to review both of these albums together because they’re quite similar in many ways.

Both Mascis and Lowery made their careers by skewing country rock into either ear-splitting or swirling-psychedelic directions. They both have led successful, acclaimed careers since the ‘80s, and they’ve similarly struggled to produce standout works in recent years. Listening to these two albums, it seems as though both men also wanted a clearinghouse of songs that wouldn’t quite make the cut on their proper bands’ albums. In terms of variety, The Palace Guards wins hands-down. Lowery has a knack for diverse styles in a way that Mascis definitely doesn’t. From the washed-out rock of “Baby, All Those Girls Meant Nothing To Me” (a song I first heard as a demo in 2007) to the lilting waltz of “I Sold The Arabs The Moon,” Lowery’s album plays like a less-immediate version of Key Lime Pie, CVB’s latter-day masterpiece.

What Several Shades Of Why lacks in range, it makes up for with an arresting sonic shift. Rather than the piercing squall that defines Dinosaur Jr’s work, Several Shades Of Why is a predominantly acoustic album. It’s thoroughly disarming to hear Mascis so clearly above a delicately-strummed guitar, but it turns out to be a rather gimmicky move. The ballads that make up Several Shades Of Why feature few hooks or memorable lyrical turns; this is not helped by Mascis’ sparse production. Interestingly, both records feature some loosely South Of The Border flairs: Several Shades’ closer, “What Happened” and The Palace Guards’ “Marigold” are highlights from each, but only “Marigold” might be worthy enough for a Cracker record. Both these albums show that yes, Mascis and Lowery have plenty of creativity in them, even when they’re not within the confines of their individual bands. They also make apparent how those confines help to refine each artists’ compositions into tighter and more rewarding records. Several Shades Of Why and The Palace Guards are prime examples of why solo records carry such cautionary stigmas. They’re occasionally enjoyable, largely inessential and eventually forgettable.

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~ by E. on March 16, 2011.

One Response to “Under Review: J Mascis – Several Shades Of Why & David Lowery – The Palace Guards”

  1. Nice review Eric! It’s sad, but unfortunately true that many solo albums succumb to the fate you’ve described. Vice had an interesting interview with J. Mascis the other day where he described the solo album as an “exercise in restraint.” I liked the word “exercise” — makes it sound like a fun experiment rather than a new masterpiece. Maybe not as good as D. Jr album but it’s interesting to see where the songwriters are coming from.

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