Friday, May 27, 2005

The blueprint

Dinosaur Jr.
Playlist: Dinosaur Jr. 1985-1988

Merge records recently released a remastered/repackaged version of Dinosaur Jr.'s first three albums, Dinosaur, You're Living All Over Me, and Bug. Dinosaur (added the Jr later) formed 20 years ago in Massachusetts with J Mascis (guitar & vocals,) Lou Barlow (bass & some vocals) and "Murph" on drums. This lineup was only together for these three albums and the final two were their creative and sonic peak.

It's all there... through their first three albums, Dinosaur Jr. helped lay the blueprint for the post-punk breakthrough of alternative rock that Nirvana lit the final charge on the explosion in late '91.

Their debut, Dinosaur (was released before they were legally forced to change their name - adding Jr. to the title,) is an often overlooked curiosity of sorts. Nowadays, indie artists seem to debut with slick and polished releases, already sure of their sound - bands like The Strokes, Interpol, Bloc Party - so it's interesting to see a band in it's genesis, feeling out it's sound. There's a lot of 'throwing and see what sticks' on this release, but a concept of Neil Young married to Sonic Youth is interesting enough to carry the listener through. A couple tracks really stand out in their anticipation of the alternative breakthrough that would happen in '91. The track "Repulsion" has everything there - a first-rate melody that alternates between snarling guitar riffs and laid-back folk-rock-inflected verses. While the album's lone balad, "Severed Lips," anticipates Mascis' song range, and great guitar solo work. It was truly a unique sound, and even though it falls flat often, it shows where the band was and where it was going with the next release. From Michael Azzerad's great Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the merican Indie Underground 1981-1991
It was its own bizarre hybrid. This was definitely music that hardcore punk was the foundation for, but there were more classic influences that turned it into something completely different. It wasn't exactly pop, it wasn't exactly punk rock -- it was completely its own thing.
-Gerard Cosloy, the founder of Homestead Records
You're Living All Over Me
You're Living All Over Me was a turning point in American underground rock & roll - period. It's such an important release, that whoever let it go out of print (SST) should be locked up or tied up in a pink room and be forced to listen to Enya on loop for the remainder of their life. Having this masterpiece back in print (thank you Merge!) makes up for some of the heinous crime, but now every indie yuppie who's hip to acts like Bloc Party, Arcade Fire and dare to give props to Nirvana and The Pixies w/o mentioning the 'junior' should be spoon fed this release until they cry "Murph." This release truly established guitar heroics as a part of indie rock, bringing the noise of Sonic Youth into more conventional song structures. J Mascis' whine was a startling contrast to the alternative movement at the time (Stipe's mumbling) and it really was a launch-pad for a couple movements. First, as mentioned, indie-guitar-rock with J's frenetic fret work and sonic blasts in a mostly pop structure are the direct predecessor to Cobain's cash cow. Second, Lou Barlow really started the lo-fi home recording movement with his song "Poledo," the prototype for what would eventually become Sebadoh. "Sludgefest" was a direct reference to the media's new moniker for this sound - grunge. This track demonstrates what Dinosaur Jr had in common their Seattle compatriots at the time - coupling big fuzzed out guitars with tempo changes, loud-to-louder dynamics, and vocals straining at the edge of their range. Meanwhile "In A Jar" takes Mascis' initial idea of speeding up country music and rocking the fuck out of it. You can hear this song's influence on Uncle Tupelo's second (and best) release Still Feel Gone, as well as in plenty of alt-rock from the 90s through today. The great cover "Just Like Heaven" was added to the release, making it that much more necessary to own. I can't overstate just how important a release this is - so important that, even with the occasional minor flaw, needs to be in any serious music lover's collection.

Bug was recorded just less then a year after YLAOM, and the momentum is obvious, why mess with a good thing. That would be it's only flaw, that it didn't grow as much from the previous release as YLAOM did. The opening track "Freakscene" is the best song Dinosaur Jr ever did, and you'd have a pretty good argument if you said it was the best song any artist did in the post-punk genre. This song was basically three years early... if it had come out in '91 at the time of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" it would've killed. "Freak Scene" is the nearly perfect combination of several musical genres: blending the crunch of metal with pop melody, punk attitude with a dash of acoustic folk and classic rock guitar leads filtered through Mascis' soon-to-be hip, slacker aesthetic. It's quite telling that Dinosaur Jr appear on Sonic Youth's live documentary 1991: The Year Punk Broke, appearing live in Europe with the likes of SY and Nirvana.

J Mascis and Lou Barlow really didn't get along though, and after recording Bug, Mascis told Barlow that the group was breaking up, and then proceeded to find someone else to play bass in the band on their tour in Australia. Jr. never completely recovered, as Mascis almost went through with breaking up the group. Kurt Cobain approached Mascis to play drums in Nirvana during this haitus (also indicative of Jr's influence on Nirvana) but after thinking it over, J stuck to guitar and the job went to Dave Grohl.

I'll give you that Green Mind and Where Ya Been were pretty good releases, but they really don't entirely live up to the promise that the original lineup had set forth. Dinosaur Jr really faded after that, while Sebadoh became the longest running breakup phone call.

Here's hoping the reunited lineup get along well enough to make it through Seattle (and your city.) Maybe even record Your Bug Is Living All Over.


drake leLane said...

Dinosaur Jr - 1985-1988

* "Forget the Swan" - Dinosaur Jr
* "Repulsion" - Dinosaur Jr
* "Severed Lips" - Dinosaur Jr
* "Little Fury Things" - Dinosaur Jr
* "Sludgefeast" - Dinosaur Jr
* "Raisans" - Dinosaur Jr
* "In A Jar" - Dinosaur Jr
* "Just Like Heaven" - Dinosaur Jr
* "Freak Scene" - Dinosaur Jr
* "Let It Ride" - Dinosaur Jr
* "The Pond Song" - Dinosaur Jr
* "The Post" - Dinosaur Jr
* "Keep The Glove" - Dinosaur Jr

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