I first came across Dino around 1989, a friend of mine had one of their albums and not long after that, I saw them play with John Cale at The Ritz in NYC maybe that same year. We stood right in front of the speakers. They were noisy as hell. Brutal. Didn’t like it. A tape loop played “thank you thank you” throughout the set and was audible between songs. I didn’t latch onto the album.
In 1991, I read a bad review of their 4th album, Green Mind and on a whim I bought it – many of my choices are based on well-written negative reviews – and I played it over and over and over, (look for a review in the future). When I read about these guys, I found out their bassist had left, and they now had a new one. I bought all their other albums and almost immediately fell in love with the album that my friend tried to play me a few years before – You’re Living All Over Me, released in December 1987 on SST records. Later, I went by myself to see them play with My Bloody Valentine at the Ritz (again) and – screaming all the songs along with them – had one of the best times I had ever had at a show. This whole “indie thing” was amazing to me. How did all these other people find out about this stuff? Where did they come from? No matter, this was “our music” and no one was going to watch this on MTV. Or so I thought.
One thing about Dinosaur Jr and singer J. Mascis in particular, it is not always easy to pick out what he’s singing or what he means but there is a profound sense of take-it-or-leave-it sadness in the songs and the performances. He is very confident that this is his lot in life and here it is. Make of it what you will.
Another thing about their SST albums – the sound quality. This is not an album with a crystal-clear sound. In fact, it is downright murky. Overbearing wah, closet drums, multi-fuzzbox effects paths, a hard-strumming bassist and I swear a vacuum cleaner on the second side of the 3rd album – not to mention what sounds like a hissy tape collage to end it all on the original release of this, their 2nd album – and maybe you will realize something very important. This is so freaking good, that even under 4.6 ft of mud, it is still better than anything almost anyone else was doing in the “hard rock” space. It makes Guns ‘n’ Roses sound like Raffi. You should realize this by the time you get to “The Lung,” the side one closer that is part surf, part metal and part mantra, (lyrics comprise two lines “No way to collapse the lung / breathes the doubt in everyone.”) and gallons of sloppy 70s guitar diddle that might make you think, “oh, THIS is what a ‘guitar hero’ is!” Here’s a guy whose mom probably still made lunch for him when he wasn’t on tour but HEY here’s a guy who figured “now I want to play guitar and I will not waste energy to conform to what anyone else thinks is ‘right’” and he did. That’s a hero.
From what I know about Dinosaur Jr, some of them were in a hardcore punk band called Deep Wound, where Mascis was the drummer and Lou Barlow was the guitarist. They put out an EP that included a song called “Video Prick.” In the mid-80s they had reformed as Dinosaur, using what I can only describe as a metal-rock approach and put out an album on Homestead. I’ve never got into that album and I think the band has forgotten/disavowed it themselves. At some point, a boomer-age band called The Dinosaurs comprising Jefferson Airplane members got upset at the name and J. & Co tacked on the “Jr.” Then they put out the masterpiece which is the subject of this review.
After that, they put out a 3rd album called Bug that was almost as good as this one, but just without that magic, you know? This was the tour I first saw them on. I have since learned that Barlow and Mascis were no longer communicating and they forced Barlow to leave or he left on his own. Mascis went on with other members, recording all instruments himself and in 2005, this band reformed to become virtually the ONLY late 80s indie rockers to make fantastic reunion-era albums.
The last track (“Poledo”), from what I understand, was very polarizing for many fans and indeed it took me years to figure out what it was doing at the end of the album. It’s a tape collage recorded on what sounds like a very cheap Lebotone cassette that was bounced between two decks. Later, I realized it was straight out of what bassist Lou Barlow was then calling “Sebadoh” and later it was “Sentridoh” when Sebadoh via evolution had honed its pop chops. So Lou got to add his future solo project to the end of a Dinosaur Jr album. The lyrics – as they arise over the tenor guitar (or uke?) strummed sections are pure beautiful 90s Lou, years before he was out of that shell (“I know I’m guilty / My stomach always hurts / Milking your attention / For the little it is worth”).
Part of what drew me to Dinosaur Jr was a hollow premise – that this was a band aping all these “ironic” metal-rock guitar moves in the name of irony or perhaps this was just “Neil Young in a metal band” (because of Mascis’ yowl)…now I know to say so is to miss the point. There is not one ounce of irony here, which was very rare in the late 80s indie scenes (plural because back then there were many things growing at the same time in different places, sometimes unaware of each other). As far as I can tell, Joseph Donald Mascis meant every word, or at least he sounds like he did. He never lost that ability either, no matter what shape his band or career was in.