J MASCIS – Fed Up And Feeling Strange (Live And In Person 1992-1998)

As co-leader of Dinosaur Jr and a reluctant figurehead for the slacker movement, Joseph Donald Mascis, Jr. became a hero to a generation. In the early mid-90s his band became favourites of MTV’s 120 Minutes, were fixtures on the festival circuit and were even booked for a live in-studio performance for the BBC arts review, The Late Show. During the first part of their career, Dinosaur Jr were a vital part of the alternative music scene; in their reconvened state and with great albums like ‘I Bet On Sky’ (2012), they continued to provide a huge influence over many bands where the distortion pedal reigns.

Given how much love has been lavished upon Dinosaur Jr over the decades, it’s strange how J’s solo catalogue has barely been afforded such high praise. Far fewer people have taken time to appreciate his ‘Songs For Amma’, his albums with The Fog or the one man acoustic works that have previously circulated. His extra curricular output has been met with such an indifference (by comparison) that even his classic ‘Martin + Me’ live recording failed to get a full UK release back in 1996.

This three disc set from Cherry Red Records attempts to at least redress some balance by giving ‘Martin + Me’ its first ever UK CD release and making it the centrepiece for a broader body of work. Naturally, the sparse arrangements of an acoustic set up expose J’s vocal limitations, so it’s not a set to be approached by anyone who’s ever been affronted by his Neil Young inspired drawl, nor is it always going to be enjoyed by musicians who want wall to wall perfection or intricate playing. Where J’s acoustic shows really come into their own, of course, is in the way they really capture a raw talent and an intimacy of performance that Dinosaur Jr’s wall of sound had long denied.

The first disc features Mascis live and solo at the legendary CBGB’s in December 1993. The recording sat in the archives forever and eventually reached the record buying public in 2007. In terms of “one man and his acoustic” shows, it’s one of the all-time greats, rivalled only by the historic Tim Buckley performance at a New York book store and – much closer to home – the widely bootlegged set by Evan Dando at McCabes, May ’93. Obviously, the legendary setting helps, but Mascis is in fantastic voice throughout and his choice of set is second to none.

Across a disappointingly short 37 minutes, his first ever acoustic performance takes in perfect stripped down takes of ‘What Else Is New?’ and ‘Get Me’, both of which give the impression of eavesdropping on a Dinosaur demo session; a frenzied ‘Not You Again’ attracts audible whoops from the crowd while showing the performer’s dexterity, and the always reliable ‘Get Me’ adopts an almost stately presence, relying on an honest and impassioned vocal to see it through – a performance which Mascis absolutely nails.

‘Not The Same’ provides a highlight for the bigger fan, as it sounds particularly haunting when taken right back to its basic musical elements; the guitar playing alternates between sturdy and fragile – the noisier parts almost sound as if they could break into something from a 70s film score – while J’s falsetto vocal displays a genuine bravery. Only the most confident performer would attempt such a moody, epic track at their first solo show – and without band assistance – but it works very well indeed. Best of all, a brilliant ‘Thumb’ places extra emphasis on fine, intricate notes dropping into the melody throughout, while J appears to take extra pride in his role as alt-rock’s natural heir to Neil Young and a quick diversion to the rare ‘Throw Down’ digs deeper than ever into a brilliant back-catalogue.  If you’re a huge Dinosaur Jr fan, you almost certainly own this set on a stand alone CD already, but for those who’ve yet to make the purchase, it’s worth the asking price of this set alone.

Sourced from several different club shows throughout 1995, the second disc’s ‘Martin + Me’ tells a somewhat different story. The assembled tracks show Mascis in both great and terrible shape depending on the night, but regardless of performance quality, the assembled track listing remains impressive. The first half concentrates on Dinosaur classics: ‘Thumb’ introduces the album with a performance where J clearly struggles throughout. He tunes his guitar, teases with a few Dinosaur riffs, coughs, tweaks something else and then launches into a performance where the lack of distortion really exposes weakness within the arrangement. Despite bordering on hard work in places, there’s actually still joy to be had when exposed to such a raw and natural take of such a classic number. ‘Get Me’ works far better, thanks in no small part to its slow pace and huge chords carrying something of a weighty presence. As one of the all time great Dinosaur Jr tunes, it always sounds great…and ragged as this live version is, it’s no exception. Allowing for more of a fingerpicked style, ‘Goin Home’ is a definite highlight – proof enough that when this unplugged thing works, it really works – with its melodic twists and falsetto vocal. For anyone who initially feels ‘Martin + Me’ is just too raw, this should set them straight. Yes, it’s a no frills affair, but when it works as well as this, it’s a disc you’ll be glad to have in your collection.

Tackling something faster, ‘What Else Is New’ is absolutely riddled with many missed chords, bum notes and other imperfections – at times Mascis even sounds as if he’ll stop entirely, apologise, and pick up where he left off – but there’s something in the ramshackle style that makes it so endearing. With it’s odd tuning and J’s nasty cough to contend with, ‘Blowin It’ sounds at first like something that might fall at the first hurdle, or at the very least get completely derailed by the performer breaking a string. And yet, somehow Mascis manages to plough onward, make it all work and win the audience’s affections even further. Switching between loud/quiet, deep jangle and tightly wound high notes, ‘Repulsion’ is just as precarious from a musical standpoint, but during this performance, J’s voice is better than ever, belting notes in a manner that suggests he’s approaching the track as if he’s bolstered by Lou Barlow and Murph’s trusty noise. A beautifully fragile ‘Keeblin’ – actually showing off some of the higher notes and registers in something approaching the expected key – is just as great and the lesser appreciated ‘Flying Cloud’ is chock full of 90s slacker brilliance, very much pushing up the quality threshold for this live collection. Those who enjoy the sound of Mascis opting for energy over everything should head straight for the brilliant rendition of ‘Not You Again’ where he manages to replace an edgy lead guitar break with speedy strums loaded with a string breaking intensity. It’s one of those live performances that could knock you sidewise on first listen, and although subsequent spins never quite summon the same feeling of glee, the “solo” remains forever funny/cool.

With some of the Dinosaur material proving a bit more hit and miss in the sparse acoustic format, ‘Martin + Me’ works at its best when J pulls other peoples’ songs out of the bag. What’s more, each of the assembled covers aren’t necessarily tunes you’d expect to be part of the Mascis repertoire. The Smiths’ ‘Boy With The Thorn In His Side’ is presented as a jubilant jangler – the ultimate busker’s performance – with some incessant riffing carrying a great tone while Mascis almost busts a gut wailing with sheer delight. Even more left field, Carly Simon’s ‘Anticipation’ is reworked as if it came straight from Neil Young via Evan Dando’s amassed b-sides and Lynyrd Skynyrd’s ‘Every Mother’s Son’ contrasts J’s own work with something far more rootsy. Dropping confident twiddles between strident chords and affecting more of a southern twang in parts of his vocal performance, it’s amazing how well this suits the alt-rock legend. In an alternate universe, it sounds like a song that could’ve graced a Dinosaur Jr b-side.

Overall, ‘Martin + Me’ isn’t the kind of recording that should be approached by anyone looking for perfection. Some of the performances sound as if they could come off the rails at any second, but what it lacks in finesse, it makes up for with heart, and as part of a broader body of work it’s still enjoyable. It works far better all round if you don’t play ‘Live At CBGB’s’ first…

Finally – and this will be the real selling point for the ‘Fed Up…’ box – for those who already own the previous two albums, a completely unreleased live show from 1998 adds a lot of extra interest. Recorded live in Stockholm, Mascis relies on a lot of old favourites – ‘Get Me’, again, proves more than reliable; ‘Thumb’ acts as a solid set filler and the moodier ‘Drawerings’ transfers very well to the acoustic format on this night – but, for the bigger fan, this set will delight when digging back further into the past.

Opening with a double whammy of ‘The Lung’ and ‘Blowin’ It’, J’s acoustic work is especially aggressive. He’s playing with such a ferocity at times that it’s easy to forgive the missed notes and fumbled elements, but what’s clearer is that he’s in especially good voice – well, as good as it gets – and the intimate audience are lapping up every second. A similar sense of living in the moment cuts through very natural renditions of ‘Not You Again’ and ‘Goin’ Home’ (greeted with a massive roar), but better still is a throwback to ‘Little Fury Things’. You’d think, as one of the noisiest tunes within the Dinosaur world, it really wouldn’t be suited to an acoustic arrangement, but Mascis has other ideas. He’s right, of course: hearing it stripped down is like hearing it for the first time; its chunky chords and introspective lyric cast it in the mould of a lost Lemonheads number and the solid melody that’s not always obvious in its electric guise allows J – for better or worse – an opportunity to explore his full vocal range.

‘Keep The Glove’ brings an almost sunny vibe with a selection of busker friendly chords and more of an upbeat demeanour, and its also good to hear how the still new ‘Too Hard’ sounds like an old classic, such is the relaxed nature of the performance. Much like the CBGB’s set, Mascis barely puts a foot wrong in front of the Scandinavian crowd. Working through brilliant takes of ‘Repulsion’, ‘Flying Cloud’ and even giving another airing to his favourite Lynyrd Skynyrd tune, this recording is a genuine gem. Yes, there’s a looseness to parts of his set, but only in the way you’d expect from such a casually approached one man show, which further raises the question of whether there was something amiss in ’95. Were those takes used for ‘Martin + Me’ really the best that could be salvaged from that tour? As this set from ’98 shows, the first performance at CBGB’s was no fluke.

With two complete sets and a host of other live recordings sourced between 1992 and 1998, ‘Fed Up & Feeling Strange’ is a brilliant time capsule of acoustic classics. If you’ve only ever owned ‘Martin + Me’ and have always appreciated its rough and ready charm, prepare to be amazed – on an off night, Mascis is capable of providing a sort of perverse entertainment through sheer raggedness, but when truly on form, his one-man show can be a genuinely wonderful thing. Since two of the three discs within this set very much fall into the latter category, its a release that no true fan should be without.

Read a review of the 2019 Dinosaur Jr deluxe editions here.

November/December 2020