Dinosaur Jr. – J, Lou, Murph and a reappraisal of the band’s back catalogue

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Dinosaur Jr.

As J Mascis heads to Arts Club later this month, Getintothis’ Andy Sunley offers a guided tour of Dinosaur Jr.’s weighty back catalogue.

The term Godfathers Of Grunge is much overused. However, in the case of Dinosaur Jr. it is somewhat appropriate.

J, Lou and Murph were an established force on the American indie/alt-rock scene just as many of the members of acts such as Nirvana were coming of age. Kurt Cobain can be seen in many photos sporting a Dinosaur Jr. t-shirt.

And it is not difficult to see the influences. J and company definitely utilised the ‘loud-quiet-loud’ model of song structure before Nirvana and Pixies took it to the next level.

Dinosaur Jr evolved from a hardcore band called Deep Wound, which featured J Mascis on drums and Lou Barlow on bass. Dinosaur (as they where known before a threat of legal action made them add the ‘Jr’ suffix) took on a broader range of influences.

While hardcore remained an obvious reference point, the trio also took cues from classic rock and more mellow fare such as Los Angeles‘ Paisley Underground outfit Dream Syndicate. As Barlow explained “we loved speed metal…we also loved wimpy-jangly stuff“.

Their back catalogue consists of eleven studio albums which were released between 1985 and 2016, with a ten year gap between 1997 and 2007. These albums can be placed into three categories. The first being albums featuring the original ‘power trio’ lineup of Messrs Mascis, Barlow and Murphy.

The second period came as the original trio broke up and Mascis enlisted various musicians to record and tour. This period ended with 1997’s Hand It Over and also coincided with their tenure on major labels.

The breakup of the original trio was seen by many as acrimonious. Barlow took regular swipes at Mascis in interviews and made his feelings clear in various songs he recorded with his side project, later main band Sebadoh. The most well known of which was 1991’s The Freed Pig.

The original trio officially reformed in 2005 and have since released four albums.

As with any band with a significant body of work there is always disagreements as to which works are the best, which ones are the most significant and where the weak links lie.

I had a good listen to every album in chronological order, beginning with 1985’s Dinosaur and ending with the 2016 album Give A Glimpse Of What Yer Not and tried to put them in order of best to worst (a process that took longer than actually listening to them!)

Here goes…

11. Without A Sound (1994)

Released after Where You Been? just as the grunge phenomenon that Dinosaur Jr. had ridden with some success was waning, this is the low point in what is a largely strong run of albums that span three distinct eras for the band.

While it was one of their most commercially successful and also yielded a moderate radio hit in Feel The Pain (accompanied by a video directed by Spike Jonze) overall it does feel a little flat and seems to lack the spark of their two earlier Warner Bros released albums.

10. Dinosaur (1985)

The debut. Where it all began. The band where fresh faced, inexperienced and young. Some fans love it and some really do not, hence the reason for its lowly position on this list.

While it is enjoyable it is quite obviously the work of a band yet to find its feet and develop their own sound.

Its 2005 reissue saw a slight change to its track listing. Bulbs Of Passion (originally a b-side to the single Repulsion) was included and positioned as the opening track at the request of Mascis.

As he later explained in the liner notes to the reissue of You’re Living All Over Me that song “gave our new direction – it felt like we were our own sound”.

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9. Give A Glimpse Of What Yer Not (2016)

Their latest release and while it is not the strongest of their post 2007 albums it is still well worth a listen. From the opening track Goin Down which boasts a fantastic singalong chorus to the Lou Barlow composed closer Left/Right, this is 47 minutes of bliss.

It is accurate to say that Dinosaur Jr. influenced bands that became popular, benefitted slightly from association with those bands and have now settled into a groove of making quality albums for the fans they picked up along the way. Long may it continue.

8. Hand It Over (1997)

The last album before their ten year hiatus and ten year break. Which was, in reality, J Mascis retiring the name Dinosaur Jr. He went on to record two albums under the name J Mascis And The Fog which do not sound dissimilar to his former band’s major label output.

Mascis cites this as his favourite of the albums he recorded for Warner Bros. However, it seems to have been a victim of record company indifference which Mascis claimed stemmed from his refusal to compromise artistically when asked to make the album more commercial sounding.

Mascis recalled in an interview with Vice: “I went to a meeting and heard the classic thing I never thought I’d hear, that I thought was just the silliest, stupid thing you used to hear if you go to a record company: ‘I don’t hear a single’…. but then that was the point where the major label gave up on it and didn’t even tell anyone it came out.

“We went on tour and people didn’t even know it had been released. It was kind of depressing. But I really liked the album. It was just hard to tour because they basically didn’t do anything to promote it.”

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7. I Bet On Sky (2012)

The reunion continues. And it sounds good, very good. While Exclaim magazine posited that the album’s mellowed tone could be seen as a tad jarring, BBC Music proclaimed it to be ‘arguably equal to their 80’s heyday’.

Particular highlights are the Barlow penned and sung Rude and Watch The Corners. The band’s slower side is again showcased on the track Almost Fare.

6. Where You Been? (1993)

This was the band’s second outing for Warner Bros and saw the label try to market them on the back of the grunge phenomenon (ironically many of the bands in that scene were influenced by Dinosaur Jr. in the first place). It did seem to fit the zeitgeist and did bring the band to many of the music fans who had taken to Nirvana, Alice In Chains and Pearl Jam.

At this moment in their career Mascis believed that the band had become more confident with larger budgets and more expensive studios. This seems to make for an album that sounds more like a ‘power trio.’ Mascis‘ lead guitar is more pronounced here than it has ever been, right from the intro to opening track Out There.

Warner Bros were also keen to market Mascis as a Generation X guitar hero. This was blatant by the cover of Spin from this period bearing the headline ‘J Mascis Is God’ a reference to the graffiti that appeared in London when a young Eric Clapton was at his height. This opinion seems to have been echoed by CMJ Magazine.

While this is a more in your face record than Green Mind it also features mellower tracks such as Goin’ Home and Not The Same. It also features what is considered the bands biggest hit Start Choppin’.

5. Beyond (2007)

The reunion fans thought they would never see finally happened in 2005. After a few appearances together on stage, including one reunion of Deep Wound for a charity gig, and the reissue of their first three albums on Merge Records (Sweet Nothing in the UK) the original trio appeared on The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson in April of 2005.

A tour followed as well as a performance of You’re Living All Over Me at All Tomorrow’s Parties in 2006, a shindig they also had a hand in curating.

Beyond proved that this was more than the clichéd cash-in reunion and was well received by fans and the press alike. To say it sounds like a continuation of Bug would be to do it a disservice. It is a fully formed album that is blatantly classic Dinosaur Jr. but which reveals a significant maturity.

When asked how the reunion came about Mascis stated “we chilled out” whereas Barlow said “we grew up”.

Mascis‘ guitar slinging is front and centre on the extended outro of Pick Me Up and a video was made for Been There All The Time. Lou Barlow‘s Back To Your Heart is a particular high point.

They even resurrected the old logo! YAY!

4. You’re Living All Over Me (1987)

The undisputed critical favourite and the second album featuring the original ‘power trio’ lineup. This is also a personal fave of Mascis who credits being able to tour the songs before recording them as the reason this is a more solid effort than their debut.

It is easy to see why many believe this is the beginnings of the Dinosaur Jr. that we all know and love. As Diffuser.fm puts it ‘the album masters the juxtaposition of mammoth noise mollified by pensive melodies and self-conscious lyrical introspection.’ It’s hard to disagree.

However, this also marked the beginning of the inter-band tensions that would surface after the recording of the follow-up Bug, with Mascis composing parts for his bandmates and exercising increasing control over the output. It was also rumoured that he had secured the majority of the royalties as the chief songwriter.

The album closes with a Musique Concrète-esque composition featuring Lou Barlow on ukulele and moans. This lead to an interview with college radio DJ Kathleen Billus, who later became his wife.

It was rumoured for many years that the album’s rather unusual title came from a conversation Mascis and an unspecified band member had while on the tour bus. This was debunked in an interview with Noisey where Mascis stated ‘I thought of it more like my sister… You know someone just like, bugging me at the time.’

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3. Green Mind (1991)

The first album without Lou Barlow. The band had told him that they’d split up despite having an Australian tour booked! It also features very little of Murph who was absent during the majority of practice sessions. Therefore he had not learned many of the songs. This left Mascis to do the drum parts.

Consequently it is largely a J Mascis solo effort, although Gumball‘s Don Fleming and studio owner Sean Slade make contributions.

This marks their second era and the start of their stint on various imprints of Warner Bros (Sire, Blanco Y Negro and Reprise).

In an interview with Noisy, Mascis states this is one of the band’s quirkiest albums. They had an increased budget but were using the same engineers and studio as they had used on 1988’s Bug.

The result is less abrasive and a little more semi-acoustic.

Album opener The Wagon begins with a chord and then the vocal, no intro, while Blowing It and the one minute and fifty six second stomper I Live For That Look blend into each other seamlessly. Green Mind also displays Mascis‘ softer side with tracks like Flying Cloud and the contemplative Thumb, both cuts he has played during his solo acoustic shows.

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2. Farm (2009)

This came two years after Dinosaur Jr.‘s 2007 album Beyond which was their first after a ten year break. Farm proved that this reunion was not about to run out of steam any time soon, or ever. To these ears it ranks as one of the best in their entire catalogue. It was also a critical hit, attaining a 8.5 rating from Pitchfork and a ‘generally favourable’ score on Metacritic.

High points include the single and slacker self help guide Over It (a video was made featuring Mascis and co on skatebaord and BMX and featuring a cameo by Minutemen and Firehose frontman Mike Watt) and the mellow See You.

It is also the longest album of the eleven, clocking in at just over an hour. However it never feels overlong or drawn out.

1. Bug (1988)

This is a prime example of a band’s breakthrough album not being the one that the band themselves actually like.

It was the last recorded with the original lineup and was recorded as tensions between J Mascis and Murph were at their zenith. Mascis explained in an interview with Loudersound: “The band was falling apart. It reminds me of when I got to interview Ozzy Osborne and was asking him about Sabotage.

“He hated that record because it reminded him of being in the studio with all these lawyers and having a really bad time. So much so that he couldn’t listen to it any more. Bug was kind of a similar thing.”

However Bug served as their breakthrough. The lead single Freak Scene was an indie chart hit in the UK and their success on these shores appeared to come as a surprise.

Mascis talked to Byron Coley about how their gigs opening for Primal Scream. “We couldn’t figure out why they had come to see a band from Amhurst [Mascis‘ hometown] It was baffling”

The lead single and opening track from this album is the aforementioned indie slacker classic Freak Scene, which perfectly blends melodic chords with two face-melting solos. It is as close to a three and a half minute pop song as the band had got thus far and cemented their reputation on the underground/alt rock scene.

Other notable cuts are No Bones, which opens with an ominous and doom-laden intro before breaking into a more melodic verse and Mascis‘ brittle vocals, and Yeah We Know with its psych influenced wah peddle verses.

Album closer is the powerful Don’t where Lou Barlow screams ‘Why don’t you like me?’ over a seemingly improvised wall of noise.

Was this a form of catharsis? Maybe.

Mascis later stated that this track came about because they needed to fill out the album and didn’t have enough material.

Honourable mentions…

Fossils (1991)

A blatant cash in EP by the bands former label SST. Released around six months after their major label debut Green Mind. It is basically the three SST singles put onto a single disc. However it is worth listening to for the covers of The Cure‘s Just Like Heaven and Peter Frampton‘s Show Me The Way.

Personally, I used to listen to this a lot as its 23 minute running time made it just the right length for the bus ride to school. Happy days.

Whatever’s Cool With Me (1991)

This was released to bridge the gap between Green Mind and Where You Been? The title track is pure mid-period Dinosaur Jr. Laid back vocals over feedback drenched guitar. The standout track is the understated, seemingly off-the-cuff Not You Again.

J Mascis Live At CBGB’s: The First Acoustic Show (2006)

Released alongside reissues of Green Mind and Where You Been? This disc sees Mascis play songs from the band’s catalogue up to that point (Where You Been? was yet to be released at the time this show was recorded) as well as some cover versions, including one by Lynyrd Skynyrd.

This is far from a note-perfect performance and the crowd can be heard applauding his attempt to play the solo of Not You Again and again showing their appreciation when he managed to pull it off.

 

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