The alterna-rock feedback slingers from Amherst, MA, Dinosaur Jr. turn 30 this month and to celebrate the group is playing seven sold-out shows in a row at New York City’s Bowery Ballroom starting December 2nd, 2015.
The power trio has been incredibly influential in the music scene and scored a few “buzz bin” worthy singles in the 90’s but never achieved huge fame. What they have done however is stay amazingly consistent, thanks to being the brainchild of guitar god J Mascis. While bass player Lou Barlow and drummer Emmett “Murph” Murphy play important roles to the group (both at it’s start and currently) it is Mascis sonic swirling that has stayed rock solid, producing, playing and being the focal point of the outfit for the three decade run.
He is Gandalf the Purple on six-strings.
To celebrate the group we are going back through their 10 studio releases and selecting one song that is needed to be heard off of each. For all of their albums this was a difficult task. What is so exciting for fans of the band and can be puzzling for those who don’t get it, is that Dino Jr has never really changed or gone through phases even with all the behind the scenes turmoil. Guitars with tons of effects, pounding rhythms and grooves, droll/passive/confusing vocals, it is safe to say they have this style down cold.
That makes for a consistently satisfying back catalog and not much difference between some selections, hopefully both long time fans and newbies will enjoy the picks of one the kickin’ rock bands of our time. In order of released:
“Forget The Swan”
Album: Dinosaur – 1985
The first song off their first release finds bassist Lou Barlow taking over lead vocals of a frankensteined together song that begins easy before dropping in psychedelic guitar licks on top of the strumming acoustic six strings. Vocally Barlow gives way to an interlude from Mascis before returning to harmonize with him on the last choruses in front of more guitar solos. In reviewing their releases in totality, their first is their worst, but “Forget The Swan” remains a track that ranges all over searching for a sound, just as the band was at the time. They would certainly lock in for their next offering.
Album: You’re Living All Over Me – 1987
It is incredibly difficult to not put every song off of You’re Living All Over Me on this list, If you are looking for the band’s best/most complete effort look no further than this gem from 1987. “Sludgefeast” is a hulking monster in the primordial sludge of long fossilized beasts and riffs. Huge and thunderous while still being offset by melodic breaks, even on a classic album it stands out as a screamer. Murph’s drums crash with power and the whole adventure seems to be exploding over it’s 5:18 run time. What a glorious sound. It would be impossible to leave this release without pointing other great tracks like “In A Jar” “Tarpit” “Raisans”…damn this album is great.
Album: Bug – 1988
Kicking off Bug (which would prove to be the band’s last with the original trio for over 19 years) “Freak Scene” gave the slacker generation an anthem. The screeching guitar and rolling/crushing drums/bass were nothing new, but sonically compressed and paired with the laconic, classic lyrics from Mascis, the group’s all-time best single emerged. Instead of mumbling about scars and poetry Mascis gets as direct as he ever will: “Freak scene just can’t believe us/Why can’t it just be cool and free us?” and the closing plea of “Just don’t let me fuck up will you/’cause when I need a friend it’s still you” remains J’s best lyric. While Bug has other killer tunes (“Post” “They Always Come”) this was the easiest album on this list to choose from via a clear cut scorcher.
Album: Green Mind – 1991
Green Mind begins the era of J Mascis taking over Dinosaur Jr. as almost a solo project (it was also their first major label release, which at the time meant something). On Green Mind he plays guitar, bass and drums on all but a few tracks. The “band” would continue mostly in this mode for the next few releases. Lou Barlow was sloppily fired and angrily moved on to Sebadoh while Murph only shows up on three tracks. One of those is “Thumb” and his snapping snare really adds to the number as J scales things back setting a mood with his fluid playing. The real star of this song though may be engineer Sean Slade who also added the haunting mellotron creating an eerie calm that runs through things, serene yet uneasy. Honorable mention should go to opener “The Wagon” as well.
Album: Where You Been?- 1992
Bringing Mike Johnson in on bass and having Murph man the kit for the full disk Where You Been? produced a plethora of great songs and was a mid career highlight. “Start Choppin’” and “Out There” are both top notch Dino magic while the cosmic wailing of “I Ain’t Sayin’” ends thing on a high note, but it is “Get Me” that really sticks to the ribs. Again it is Mascis lyrics which catch the ear and elevate the song above the others (the backup vocals from Tiffany Anders don’t hurt things either). The protagonist knows the current relationship has it’s limits and they are simple, “You’re not gonna get me through this/are you?”. Not sung as a plea, more as a realization and one that makes for a moving number. J lyrically (always) sticks to ambiguity, but here the yearning manifests itself perfectly with the musical feeling and chorus. Oh yeah and the guitar solo kicks ass.
“I Don’t Think So”
Album: Without A Sound- 1994
It may be blasphemy to skip the the band’s biggest single “Feel The Pain” whose video acted as a gateway for lots of fans, but that track always felt like an outlier. In a catalog that has very little peaks or valleys, just amazingly solid releases, Without A Sound remains the band’s most overrated offering. In retrospect songs like “Yeah Right” can feel derivative and “Grab It” a bit tepid. “I Don’t Think So” however matches the groove with a great guitar line to get hips swinging in their patented “ear-bleeding-country” method before Mascis uncorks a tight solo in his slacker ho-hum manner sealing a rockin’ number.
Album: Hand It Over – 1997
The last Dino Jr album for ten years, this is their most underrated offering and “Alone” is a major reason why. Masics delivers a guitar masterwork, stripped raw with less lyrics and more a primal feeling. There is no irony and witticism in this one, just a man, alone, with his army of guitar sounds to rescue him. While J going falsetto vocally can be a bit unnerving at first, once locked in the waves of guitar will wash away any worries like a sonic ocean. Screeching, diving, strumming, soaring he does it all, literally, he is also playing all the instruments on this one (minus bass) and you wish he would never stop as the fade out comes too soon, yes even at eight minutes.
Album: Beyond – 2007
In one of the least likely of all possible reunions the original trio came back together in 2005 and toured to adoring fans, recapturing their slacker/driving feedback spirit and sound of the late 80’s. The regrouping was so positive they recorded Beyond, and it was as if the group had never broke up to begin with. The songs were fully formed, dynamic, blistering, groovy, in essence exactly what Dino Jr. had always been. “Almost Ready” is catchy as all hell to open things and you just gotta love that the stoner rock band is “Almost Ready” to return after a 10 year break for Dino Jr. releases and almost a 20 year gap from the original trio. Top to bottom this is the strongest of the band’s reunion disks with other songs making a stab at being selected (“This Is All I Came To Do”, “Pick Me Up”, “Been There All The Time”) but in the end it turns out the band was completely ready.
Album: Farm – 2012
Lou Barlow admitted himself that he did everything nasty and reverted to “small minded revenge tactics” after he was fired, personally attacking Mascis whenever he could, which made this reunion so surprising. One of the reasons however that it has stayed so artistically fruitful is the inclusion of two Barlow penned tracks for each release. There have been a few good ones, but “Imagination Blind” is the standout from Farm, closing the album on a chugging/stomping note. The bass gets lots of distortion love while the drums slam and a tight solo keeps things from getting too sludgy. WIth Barlow and Murph back in the fold the band was clicking on all cylinders.
“Watch The Corners”
Album: I Bet On Sky – 2012
While few could see this reunion coming, no one expected the group to create a three record collection that would rival their original output While You’re Living All Over Me is a masterwork, the consistency of all the reunion releases would lead me to rank them ahead of anything else the original trio produced. I Bet On Sky solidified that thinking as it kicked out it’s first single “Watch The Corners”. The track is Dino Jr. in their entirety. Lou and Murph start and stop in head banging manners while feedback leaks from all speakers before Mascis tears open a stratospheric solo, then goes even higher for his second go at fretboard fireworks. The lyrics may mean everything or nothing, but the group is so locked in it works to cement them as all time greats.
Thanks to the band and all involved for the amazing music produced over the past 30 years and here’s greedily hoping there is even more on the horizon.