You’re Living All Over Me (SST ‘87) Rating: A
Although I’ve never heard their debut, the consensus among most critics is that this sophomore album is where Dinosaur Jr. really hit their stride. In fact, most fans feel that they never topped this album, and it does feature remarkably raw and exciting performances. The band is powered by leader J. Mascis’ incredibly LOUD, fuzzed out guitar, and though Mascis will never be accused of being a great singer his croaky, sleepy drawl offers a unique contrast to the band’s noisy music. If you like the grungey side of Neil Young then you’ll probably like Dinosaur Jr. an awful lot, as Mascis’ overdriven guitar exploits often thrill in a similarly unhinged “who cares about technique” kind of way. In addition, the band mixes in a surprisingly melodic pop sensibility within their heavily distorted guitar interjections, and this loud/soft approach became a much-copied “alternative rock” template. Of course, few of the band’s followers ever delivered a package as intense or as thrilling as You’re Living All Over Me, though some of the melodies here admittedly get buried beneath the band’s massive wall of sound. Highlights include “Little Fury Things,” an instant indie classic, “Kracked,” which arguably features the album’s best guitar solo, “The Lung,” which expertly exemplifies the band’s melodic/explosive/melodic/explosive dynamics, “Raisans,” which features an affecting vocal, a catchy chorus, and yet another notable guitar solo, and the epic slow builder “Tarpit,” whose climax features Mascis’ guitar roaring with all the subtlety of an unleashed T. Rex. Note: Weak link “Poledo” was “recorded on 2 crappy tape recorders by (bassist) Lou (Barlow) & Lou alone in his room,” thereby foreshadowing his post-Dinosaur Jr. career leading Sebadoh. Note #2: The cd has a totally over the top, and one would presume, tongue in cheek, cover of Peter Frampton’s “Show Me The Way.” Note #3: The band was originally called Dinosaur, and it was only after this album was recorded that the band added the Jr. appendage due to potential legal action from a similarly named ‘60s group.
Bug (SST ‘88) Rating: A
A continuation of the blistering style of You’re Living All Over Me, Bug is a slightly more diverse and catchy collection, though it sacrifices little (if anything) in the way of power. In fact, if anything Mascis’ guitar is even more overblown here, and he lends deliriously overdriven guitar solos to every song (consider that a warning to you guitar solo hating punk rockers). But the band also sprinkles in some acoustic guitars and catchy choruses, though the sludgy “The Post” and the tuneless Barlow rant “Don’t” end the album on a less than exemplary note (its predecessor YLAOM had a similar problem). Although it's hard to pick highlights (the first seven songs are all great), it should be noted that “Freak Scene,” which leads off the album off by detailing the underground rock scene, is deservedly considered the album’s “classic” song, while “No Bones” (following the pattern of the previous album) contains the album’s most exciting guitar raveup. Elsewhere, “Pond Song” is probably the album’s prettiest song and “Budge” (arguably) its catchiest, as Mascis’ songwriting exhibits admirable growth and the rhythm section again supplies a heavy kick. Note: On “Don’t,” Barlow repeatedly screams “why don’t you like me?” over tremendously overblown guitars. Considering that Barlow got fired from the band soon after this album's release it’s safe to assume that he didn't get his answer!
Green Mind (Sire ‘91) Rating: A
This album was practically a J. Mascis solo project, as Murph only drums on three tracks and Mascis receives only minimal support from several other contributors. Fortunately, by and large Mascis has the chops to pull it off, and though many older fans were put off by Green Mind’s mellower, less abrasive style, Mascis could easily justify his new direction by pointing out that he was simply maturing as a songwriter and that he had probably taken the band’s previous style as far as it could go. Rather than bludgeoning the listener with blaring guitars and shards of feedback, Green Mind gives listeners a lot more variety (never exactly a band strength), though perhaps some excitement has been sacrificed as a result. Still, though not everything he tries on this major label debut works (for example, at times the drums are too loud or his vocals are too buried), Green Mind has enough high points to more than compensate for its minor flaws. For example, the driving pop of “The Wagon” continues the Dinosaur Jr. tradition of beginning each album with a killer track, and the terrifically titled “Puke + Cry” is also catchy and surprisingly funky (if also overly repetitive like several songs here). Elsewhere, “How’d You Pin That One On Me” (according to the 1992 Rolling Stone Album Guide) “is the glorious noise every garage band dreams of” (then again, Rolling Stone also gives only 2 out of 5 stars to You’re Living All Over Me and Bug), particularly the ending, which features an astounding guitar raveup that recalls the band’s previous albums. Other highlights include “Water,” a beautifully relaxed and catchy song with yet another great guitar solo (though again its big beats seem a bit out of place), and “Thumb,” led by its pretty mellotron and a soaringly melodic guitar solo. Critics and fans alike seem to disagree about this album’s merits, as Mascis relies more on acoustic guitars and exhibits a tendency towards pop previously only hinted at. However, I think that Mascis’ whiny but affecting vocals are actually better suited to mellower material, and though this was Dinosaur Jr.’s most conventional album to date, Mascis’ songwriting was at peak efficiency throughout, resulting in another great album.
Where You Been (Sire ‘93) Rating: A-
Some people think that Dinosaur Jr. peaked early and then slipped irredeemably, while another school of thought is that Mascis’ early albums are undone by a lack of variety and that he didn’t peak until later. I rather enjoy all of it, and though by now his ideas no longer seem especially fresh or original, J. Mascis remains a fine songwriter and a genuinely thrilling guitar player. Reforming an actual band with the talented Mike Johnson on bass (he also adds haunting backing vocals) and Murph again tackling drum duties, on Where You Been Dinosaur Jr. continues in the mellower vein of Green Mind, though as usual there’s still plenty of grungey guitars as well. On the downside, though I still enjoy Mascis’ distinctive guitar playing, he would probably be better off tightening up his songwriting at this point, especially since some of these songs (and solos) drag on past the point of what logic should dictate. Fortunately, much of Where You Been sees Mascis continuing to expand his songwriting and singing capabilities, such as using an effective falsetto croon on the inventive “Start Choppin'” and the pretty acoustic ballad “Goin’ Home,” which also features atmospheric keyboards. In addition, “Out There” begins the album with another predictably great rocker, and “What Else Is New” is one of his best constructed and most moving songs, while Mascis’ soaring guitar shares center stage with guest vocalist Tiffany Anders who excels on the epic “Get Me.” The album’s most surprising song is “Not The Same,” a moody ballad (with a particularly vulnerable Mascis vocal) the likes of which the band hadn’t ever attempted before. And for those of you who questioned whether this was such a good thing, “On The Way” delivered the type of catchy Dino rager that suggested that Mascis still knows where his bread is buttered.
Hand It Over (Sire ‘97) Rating: A-
After Without A Sound and then a solo effort, Martin and Me, neither of which were warmly received, many people wrote J. Mascis off as a has-been. Thankfully, Mascis brought back his band (with George Berz replacing Murph on drums), plugged in his guitar, and proved his doubters wrong with this consistently strong if not quite classic release. Though Hand It Over still contains the trademark noise that distinguished these guys in the first place, Mascis tinkers with their loud and sloppy (i.e. grungey) sound just enough to keep things sounding fresh. For example, there’s the floating flute melody of the lovely “Never Bought It,” some nifty banjo on the short but sweet “Gettin Rough,” and the unforgettable piccolo trumpet riffs on “I’m Insane.” Elsewhere, “I Don’t Think” again suggests Neil Young and Crazy Horse on steroids, while on “Nothin’s Goin’ On” and “Can’t We Move This” Mascis turns up the amps in a relatively straightforward (but effective) manner. He’s still not what I’d call a natural singer, but Mascis’ heartfelt vocals always manage to win me over, particularly on sad ballads such as “Sure Not Over You” and “Gotta Know” (the latter being an admittedly noisy ballad). Mascis’ effectiveness as a vocalist is perhaps best evidenced on the 8-minute epic “Alone,” an intense dirge of a song whose careening guitars and splattering drums are actually overshadowed by Mascis’ lonely whisper of a voice. Of course, Hand It Over also does little to diminish Mascis’ reputation as one of alt-rock’s greatest guitar heroes, and though this album would prove to be the band’s last at least they exited while still in fine, hard rocking form. Update: Not so fast, as the original Dinosaur Jr. (Masics, Barlow, Murph) improbably regrouped and have thus far released two surprisingly stellar comeback albums in 2007’s Beyond and 2009’s Farm.
Ear Bleeding Country: The Best Of Dinosaur Jr. (Rhino ’01) Rating: A
Along with bands like Sonic Youth, The Replacements, Hüsker Dü, and The Pixies, Dinosaur Jr. blazed a highly influential trail without which the ‘90s alternative boom might never have happened. Like those bands, Dinosaur Jr. never made it as the “next big thing” as many had predicted, in part because leader J. Mascis was considered press shy and “difficult,” but also because the band was simply too strange and extreme for commercial radio. For those of you who missed out on the band the first time around, or for those of you who thought that the bands albums were inconsistent (a common claim but one which I’d strongly dispute), Ear Bleeding Country: The Best Of Dinosaur Jr. cherry picks songs from each of the band’s releases for a fine, career encompassing overview. Featuring 19 songs, this compilation hits most of the expected high points ((“Repulsion,” “Little Furry Things,” “Freak Scene,” “The Wagon,” “Start Choppin’,” “Get Me,” “Feel The Pain”), while including harder to find songs from singles (a cover of the Cure’s “Just Like Heaven”) and EPs (“Whatever’s Cool With Me” and “Not You Again”). In addition, the album ends with a song from last year’s J. Mascis and The Fog album called “Where’d You Go,” which strongly recalls (you guessed it) Dinosaur Jr. As with most retrospectives, there are some songs here that I personally wouldn’t have included, but even the staunchest Dinosaur Jr. fanatic would probably have trouble finding too many faults with this excellent (pre-comeback) career overview. J. Mascis and his alternating cast of bandmates have always had a uniquely enduring grunge folk sound that contributed greatly to the rock n’ roll cause, and Ear Bleeding Country: The Best Of Dinosaur Jr. recapitulates the career high points of these underground legends for a whole new generation of listeners.