June 25, 2015
Spanning the evolution of classic rock, hardcore, grunge and alt. rock, J Mascis’ Dinosaur Jr. have endured break-ups, label shake-ups and legal disputes to tread a bold path that never quite afforded them the notoriety lavished on contemporaries like Pixies and Nirvana. With an unwavering discography in the midst of a renaissance (courtesy, last year, of Numero Group among others), Nick Soulsby gets to grips with one of the finest balls-out fun and exciting guitar bands of the last thirty years.
Words: Nick Soulsby
J Mascis is the Mark Rothko of the guitar world. To a layperson there’s a constancy about his work, a shape and approach that emerged fully formed on Dinosaur Jr’s 1985 debut and has persisted within strict boundaries ever since. What changes is the colour wash he provides to the band’s power-trio format which runs all the way from fiery punk-inflected crimson to blues-inspired shading to bright ochre indie.
And there’s no denying that Mascis’ signature style – the wail of seventies’ rock guitar burnished with ample levels of distortion – is a presence as welcome as the voice of an old friend. The return of the original 1985-1989 trio with Lou Barlow (who Mascis had sacked in 1989) and drummer Murph has been a clear success with three new albums sounding like a modernized, matured iteration of the same intensity the band played with way back when. Thurston Moore famously wrote Sonic Youth’s ‘Teenage Riot’ in 1988 inspired by the idea of J Mascis as President.
Next, at the peak of the Nirvana-boom a few years later, Mascis and Barlow passed at an airport and Barlow bellowed “that could have been us!!” at his erstwhile bandmate. The truth is that the edgy voice, the mumbled moments, the amp-worship trumping the cleaned up clarity of mainstream rock – it all meant Dinosaur Jr. were never going to become a Pearl Jam-aping phenomenon but what they did become was one of the finest balls-out fun and exciting guitar bands of the last thirty years. So, to those who have always rocked, here’s ten albums deserving a salute.
Listen to tracks from all ten records in this playlist or individually as you read below:
(Homestead Records, 1985)
There’s an extraordinary variety to this first effort by Dinosaur (who subsequently added the ‘Jr.’ upon learning of another band with the same name). The blur of jittery indie strumming, occasional noisy hardcore rips and DIY-cheap production job make this sound like an inauguration of the lo-fi scene for which Lou Barlow’s next band, Sebadoh, would act as figurehead. The threads binding Dinosaur to all that would come are the mammoth guitar moments and sheepishly emotive vocals each courtesy of J Mascis.
Another overlooked component of Mascis’ craft is his way with the components of a song; the plugging together of riffs and movements to create motion, to derail a song wherever drama is required, to spotlight a word or moment. Every element that would make the later band is already here in 1985. Strangely the only thing the album is lacking is the single anthemic track that each subsequent album would feature – the only contender is the loser-charm of ‘Repulsion’. Instead what one is faced with on this debut is a remarkable variety of approaches to pop-rock incorporating the history Mascis and Barlow shared in the hardcore scene (where they played as Deep Wound) wedded to a love of Seventies’ rock and the static-heavy low-paced college rock of the Eighties.
You’re Living All Over Me
(SST Records, 1987)
‘Little Fury Things’ opens the album by scouring the speakers with static then Lee Ranaldo of Sonic Youth joins the band on the mellow harmonies of the chorus before the song segues into the dejected downbeat verses. That’s a lot of ground covered in just the first couple minutes of an album that shows a ton of imagination. Dinosaur Jr. have gained muscle and pace on this release, everything seems quicker and the album is half over before a couple of songs are allowed to drop below frantic. Mascis’ guitar is pushed a step further into the red and he no longer even half-hides his admiration for guitar worshippers of the past.
Meanwhile, the moderately cleaned up production places his voice front-and-center where its edges and undertones can be appreciated; every syllable is so well-articulated even as every note is broken, whined and twisted. Barlow too is finding his voice as he symbolically separates himself from his current band; his showcase track, ‘Poledo’, is a half-spoken, half-sung, acoustic ballad recorded alone at home and then wedged into a noise collage of tape experiments Barlow is amusing himself with at the time.
The album ends with a gorgeous cover of The Cure’s ‘Just Like Heaven’; if you’ve never touched Dinosaur Jr. before start here and work your way on out. It’s where the band’s potential mainstream appeal first shows; taking the gothic pop charm of the original and flipping it inside out to find there’s a guitar anthem hidden inside was an inspired decision.
(SST Records, 1988)
The underground indie anthem had a bumper crop in ’88-’89; Sonic Youth’s ‘Teenage Riot’, Mudhoney’s ‘Touch Me I’m Sick’ and Dinosaur Jr.’s ‘Freak Scene’. The latter sounds fresh today, a clattering intro riff, verses that end note-perfect for windmill guitar moves on stage, Winsome lyrics spoken softly over a rumbling underpinning of bass and drums, a signature solo from Mascis, then that line a whole crowd can chant back “sometimes I don’t thrill you, sometimes I think I’d kill you, just don’t let me fuck up will you? Cus when I need a friend it’s still you.”
It’s hard not to see the track ‘Don’t’ as a retort to that same line. To express his hurt and confusion over his failing friendship with Mascis – the two would often end up fist-fighting on stage – Barlow screams “why don’t you like me?” in a deranged fashion only for Mascis’ guitar to screech back at him across five disturbingly naked and aggressive minutes. The song would be comedic if not for its intensity. The sheer talent of both guitarist and bassist keeps this album together throughout; there’s not a misstep on the entire album even as it gets harder not to see the words as being about them.
Gaining a place on a major label subsidiary, shedding his sparring partner Lou Barlow, a lengthy pause between releases, then this – the only near-misstep in the Dinosaur Jr. catalogue. Instead of another coruscating blast of noise guitar, Mascis returned with an album on which the fury had been toned down, on which double-tracked semi-acoustic guitars were a predominant feature, where the mixing job made every song sound mellowed, subdued.
While the instrumentation was a touch more obscured, Mascis’ vocals had been pushed into the foreground but he made no allowance for potential fame, persisting with his cracked crooning to its usual beautiful effect while ensuring he’d remain an acquired taste.
Re-visiting this release after a lot of years away ‘The Wagon’ is still the biggest song by a mile. The song lacks an intro, cutting sharply into a first verse with no pause, no instrumental breathing space – that same pace is maintained throughout the twists and turns of a track I remember for its velocity but now appreciate for its poetry also. This more blissed-out Dinosaur Jr. seemed like a pause for breath after the headlong trio preceding it. Appreciate it for its beauty, its gentility, its gentler charms.
Where You Been?
There’s a version of this album that not only features the original of ‘What Else is New’ but also has a live take of this standout song. It’s always worth getting the live cut – it features the biggest souring guitar solo of the entire alternative rock era and has me thanking the lord that SOMEONE in amid the punk-inspired scene of the Nineties really could play guitar to the limits of its rock god potential without needing to derail themselves with irony, knowing winks, self-parody. The entire band simply stop for a minute or two and allow the guitar to score a pattern all over the original rising up to a peak then cutting out to leave the forelorn strumming and pleas of the verse sounding even more exposed and bereft.
Where You Been? saw Mascis cutting out a lot of the ramshackle touches that had prevented earlier Dinosaur Jr. records from fully embracing their love of Seventies rock. The debt to punk was paid more quietly, guitars were allowed to swoop and sore without being bathed in static, feedback was kept on a leash and used like a disciplined attack dog, to achieve specific impact at targeted points on the record. There’s an assuredness to the playing throughout the record that shows Mascis had evolved, had grown.
Without a Sound
The alternative rock zeitgeist was about to pass on when suddenly Mascis made his peace with it and handed in a record that adopted the big league mix he’d previously ignored. The resulting clarity was a perfect fit and the album contains moments like ‘Feel the Pain’ which, a couple years earlier, would have been likely to follow his late Eighties’ highlights to indie greatness and maybe even wider popularity.
The album makes it clear why Barlow and Mascis had been ready musical partners way back, Mascis’ lyrical concerns, like Barlow’s, are focused on relationships, on disappointments, on the connections between human beings. Mascis though wears his heart less on his sleeve, there’s a furtiveness about admitting feeling rather than just reporting its existence. That detachment, the avoidance of hurt, lends a poignancy to songs whose surface style, all energetic guitar and amps to eleven, would seem incompatible with mourning. It makes more sense of Mascis’ mumbled moments, even his vocal approach seems to be to retreat, to hide a little.
Even more than Barlow’s heart-wounded troubadour, Mascis summons up and expels that feeling of having been broken and having to put it all back together, shrug, move on even when everything is still sore to the touch. “I feel the pain of everyone and then I feel nothing.”
Martin + Me
(Reprise Records, 1996)
I saw a J Mascis solo show in a small bar I don’t really remember, sometime in the mid-2000s, in – I think – Nottingham. It’s become a soporific half-memory, a sleepy dream that I can’t pin down though I know I’ve got the ticket in a drawer. Mascis shambled out onto the small foot-high stage and slumped onto a fold-down chair. His guitar strap was placed over his head by a roadie, guitar settled onto his knee. He didn’t look up, his hair hung over his face, he didn’t say a word to the audience – it was like watching the preparation of a specimen of human taxidermy.
Then he began to play and it was like his hands belonged to a different human being. His fingers were a flurry of activity coaxing volume, pressure, attack – like a medium in a moment of possession producing automatic writing. The Martin + Me disc is acoustic and for once it means Mascis’ dexterity can be appreciated rather than being hidden beneath his guitar incendiaries – it reminds me of that show where I remember nothing about the time or place except following this man’s exceptional hands across a fretboard.
Hearing his songs stripped to their core brings an appreciation of their beauty, his mastery of pop craft and his way with a good cover song. It’s messy, Mascis doesn’t pause for slapped strings or roughness, but it’s still like sitting up close and watching him have fun.
Hand it Over
(Reprise Records, 1997)
Overlooked to a degree after the bursting of the alt.rock bubble, this would be the last Dinosaur Jr. record for a decade and is the pinnacle of Mascis’ imperial phase where his mastery of the guitar, his total commitment to his unique style, was allowed full reign. The centrepiece of the album is the eight minute track ‘Alone’ – Mascis is no longer playing for the pop shot, but there’s still nothing pompous about the album, it just spools out to where it needs to go. The blue tone infests every song, there’s an echo, a dark space in each recording that turns the cascade of bright lights on ‘Without a Sound’ into glimmering embers.
Shedding the alternative rock racket and adopting this howling, sustain-drenched approach creates the most beautiful album of Mascis’ career in which the words and music are all buried to a greater or lesser degree but where the mood remains suspenseful from beginning-to-end, there’s never a let up or a chink of light allowed to penetrate the sombre vibe. It calls an image to my mind of an old blues guitarist playing a last show on a barren stage then strolling out of the single spotlight and away into the darkened wings without ever looking back or wishing to celebrate its conclusion – it feels like an album ending a career.
(Fat Possum, 2007)
Emerging after a ten year break, Dinosaur Jr. returned with Lou Barlow and drummer Murph back in the fold. The results are like they’ve never been away – like ‘being Dinosaur Jr.’ was something in their blood even if the trio hadn’t played together since 1989. It’s been a long while since Mascis has felt able to unleash a pop-nugget like ‘Almost Ready’ – it’s a warm welcome back, a cheery spirit positively inviting the audience to smile at this old friend’s entrance. Barlow contributes a couple of his rockier efforts to give the album a unity that the 1985-1988 efforts sometimes lacked.
There’s a fuzz-heavy halo surrounding the album and most songs go for a variation on the louder-softer formula that the Pixies and Nirvana took to its extreme. Mascis seems to have reined in his desire to simply wail on guitar, the solos are recognizably his work but never quite as out-of-control as they sometimes felt back when it sometimes seemed like his guitar was erupting in through a side wall of the song – like a musical neighbour so overcome by what he was hearing that he just had to get in there and play through the resulting shower of plaster sparks and phased dust. It’s a functional album – like the band are kicking the tires and checking the bolts don’t rattle on a much-loved classic.
Farm could almost be thought of as a volume two accompanying Beyond. There’s a unified aesthetic sense uniting the approach, tone, style and sound of this album with its predecessor. There’s no evolution, each musician involved has long since established their place in the firmament and the career they hark back to is one with enough musical twists and enough deep talent that each song remains simultaneously recognisable and enjoyable. This is what Dinosaur Jr. is about, stripping the pretentions and ugliness from hard rock and leaving only the sugary joy of distorted guitars, drums hit so hard they make drinks dance along the bar top, choruses and lyrics one can sing eyes shut and head nodding.