Thursday, April 14, 2005

Dinosaur Jr. Reissues


One of my favorite episodes of The Wonder Years was the one where Kevin joins a rock band called The Electric Shoes. On the night of their big debut Kevin utters something to the effect of, “We may not be good, but at least we’ll be loud.” Dinosaur Jr. was loud, extremely loud especially in the confines of a small club, but they were also good. Drummer turned guitarist J. Mascis, bassist Lou Barlow both formerly of Massachusetts hardcore punk band Deep Wound joined forces with drummer Murph from Connecticut punk band All White Jury to form Dinosaur in the fall of 1984. They added the Jr. to the name after a band of aging hippies named The Dinosaurs asked them to change their name. I suspect lawyers were involved.

The early days when they were just Dinosaur saw them alienate soundmen, club owners, and fans with the decibel level of their shows, but there was something unique going on underneath the maelstrom. They were fusing hardcore punk energy with Seventies style guitar bombast which at the time was revolutionary, even downright heretical. Another stylistic triumph was the laconic vocals of J. Mascis, sung like he could barely be bothered. They became label mates with Sonic Youth on Homestead Records which released their debut album in 1985. It still sounds strange today, but it was truly an oddity back then. Punk underpinnings meet hippie noodling, songs go through crazy tempo changes creating something new in the soon to be burgeoning college/alternative underground scene. Highlights of this first album are “Bulbs Of Passion”, Lou Barlow’s wistful “Forget The Swan” and “Repulsion” which was also the best track when it was included on the Homestead compilation The Wailing Ultimate.

Dinosaur Jr. would follow Sonic Youth to SST Records and release what most people feel is the quintessential Dinosaur Jr. album; You’re Living All Over Me. The noise was still there, but there was a better focus on song craft. Mascis, Barlow, and Murph were functioning as a cohesive unit on this record. The album opener “Little Fury Things” kicks the album off with a perfect example of the mature Dinosaur Jr. sound. “Sludgefeast” could have been a Sonic’s Rendezvous Band cut and that is a good thing. “In A Jar” is another classic, but it’s the cover of The Cure’s “Just Like Heaven” that usually gets the most notice. I remember when WRVU (the college radio station I liked to listen to) got numerous complaints from unhappy Cure fans whenever they dared to play the Dino Jr. version. You’re Living All Over Me was also Barlow’s songwriting swansong with the band. “Poledo” is a harbinger of what was to come with Sebadoh.

By the time Bug was recorded Barlow and Mascis weren’t talking to each other, which makes the Mascis penned Barlow sung “Don’t” hilarious with the only lyrics being “Why don’t you like me” repeated over a Stooges Funhouse type freak-out. Speaking of freak, “Freak Scene” became the alternative hit slacker anthem of 1988 with its mix of soaring riffs and endearing vocals. Other favorites are “Let It Ride” and “The Post” where Mascis serenades us in that Neil Young sounding voice of his about a woman that's "... my post to lean on, and I just cut her down." But after three classic records, Barlow was dumped from the band which he didn’t want to play in anyways and things would never be the same again.

Dinosaur Jr. would continue to make good albums, but it’s the first three in their discography that are the stuff of legend. How Dinosaur Jr., You’re Living All Over Me, and Bug could have been allowed to go out of print is beyond my comprehension, but that is fixed with these reissues by Merge Records. Much has been written about how these records were precursors to the chart triumph of Nirvana and while this is undoubtedly true, one shouldn’t go listening to these albums just to view the foundations of the alternative house of rock. They should seek these records out just to hear some great raucous rock and roll; music that didn’t depend on the past or future, but only on the loudness of now.

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