By Eleni P. Austin
The seeds of Dinosaur jr. were sown when J. (ne’ Joseph Donald) Mascis and Lou Barlow formed their first band, Deep Wound, while attending high school together in Amherst, Massachusetts. The original line-up included vocalist Charlie Nakajima and Scott Helland on bass. J. played drums and Lou was lead guitarist. Influenced by bands like Anti-Pasti and Discharge, their sound was completely Hardcore Punk. They recorded some demos and an EP before disbanding in 1984.
J. and Lou quickly reconvened and promptly switched instruments. J. moved to guitar and Lou tackled the bass, they split vocal duties and enlisted Murph, (ne’ Emmett Jefferson “Patrick” Murphy III), to play drums. They christened the band Dinosaur. J.’s friend Gerard Cosloy had recently founded local label Homestead Records and he released the band’s self-titled debut in 1985.
Recorded at a home studio in the woods for about $500.00, the album was surprisingly eclectic. The thrashy, hardcore sound of Deep Wound was supplanted by a Metal-Country-Gothic-Garage combo platter that sounds abysmal on paper, but coalesced beautifully on vinyl.
Their second album, You’re Living All Over Me arrived in 1987 after the band signed a deal (much to Gerard Cosloy’s dismay), with SST Records. Their sound had evolved once again, and they actually pioneered the “quiet-loud” dynamic that provided a blueprint for bands like Nirvana and My Bloody Valentine. Unfortunately, some defunct Hippie super-group had already used the Dinosaur moniker in the early ‘70s. When they were threatened legal action the trio became Dinosaur jr.
A year later the band returned with Bug. By this time J. was aiming for tighter control over song structures and arrangements. He insisted on creating bass and drum parts for Lou and Murph to play. Naturally this created intra-band tension. During the “Bug” tour (and just as their cover of the Cure song, “Just Like Heaven” was gaining traction in the U.K.), J. threw Lou off the tour and out of the group. Lou briefly licked his wounds and formed Sebadoh.
Donna Drescsh and Don Fleming took turns subbing for Lou on tour. Although Dinosaur jr.’s line-up was in-flux, Sire Records still offered them a deal in 1990. J. played all the instruments on their major label debut, Green Mind, reactions were mixed but the band soldiered on. Mike Johnson became their permanent bassist and they hit the road with openers, Nirvana. (Until the Seattle band’s sophomore effort, Nevermind, exploded, ushering in the Grunge era).
By 1992 they were co-headlining a tour with Jesus And Mary Chain, My Bloody Valentine and Blur. Their videos were in heavy rotation on MTV’s alternative music program, “120 Minutes.” In 1993 they released Where You Been, it shot into the Top 10 in the U.K. and reached the Top 50 in the U.S.
J. Mascis’ dictatorial grip on the band’s sound only tightened. Fed up, Murph quit after the “Where You Been” tour. George Berz took over the drum kit on subsequent tours supporting two more albums; 1994’s Without A Sound and 1997’s Hand It Over.
What had begun as a three-piece was now essentially a one-man-band. Following a televised appearance on (of all things,) the “Jenny Jones Show,” J. retired the Dinosaur jr. name and by 1999 he was making music as J. Mascis + The Fog, and then simply J. Mascis.
In the ensuing years, first with Sebadoh and then Folk Implosion, Lou Barlow was credited with helping pioneer the lo-fi music movement of the ‘90s. Meanwhile Murph spent a few years keeping time for the Lemonheads.
At the beginning of the 21st century, J. began showing up at Sebadoh gigs. He and Lou had reached a rapprochement, just in time to promote re-issues of the SST era Dinosaur jr. albums, released in 2005. Murph returned to the fold and the trio reunited for a live performance on the “Craig Ferguson Show.”
19 years after the original line-up imploded, Dinosaur jr. released Beyond. Finally, J. has loosened the reins, sharing songwriting chores with Lou and allowing Lou and Murph the freedom to play their parts their way. Not only was the record a critical success, it was commercially viable, debuting at #69 on the Billboard Charts.
In 2009, the band signed with the respected indie label, Jagjaguwar, (home to Foxygen, Bon Iver, Okkervil River and Sharon Van Etten). That year they released Farm and in 2012 followed with I Bet On Sky. In between Dino albums both J. continued to record solo efforts as did Lou. At the end of 2015 the trio went back in the studio and the result is Give Me A Glimpse Of What Yer Not.
The listener is greeted with the one-two punch of “Goin’ Down” and “Tiny.” A squall of feedback and chunky power chords wash over the bludgeoning backbeat that propels “Goin’ Down.” Insistent lyrics look for reassurance; “Are you with me, are you with me when I’m gone?” as J. unspools a series of guitar solos that sparkle and shred.
“Tiny” blends sunshiny vocals and jangly riffs that slither around a rattle-trap rhythm and throbbing bass lines. The sugar rush melody almost succeeds in camouflaging deeply insecure equivocations like “Replace a friend I’m overwhelmed I need to, the fear is good you understood it wrong/A box is overflowing then I see you, the fear is that I can’t be friends for long.” J.’s careening solo caws, claws and caterwauls before spiraling skyward.
Although it’s been four years and a couple of solo projects since the last Dinosaur jr. album, this band operates like a well-oiled machine. The primordial sludge of “I Walk For Miles” oozes Cro-Magnon charm. Muddy bass notes collide with a thick-limbed beat. J.’s Jurassic solos attack and retreat; strafing one minute, shimmering the next. The extended instrumental coda allows the trio to pivot between taut economy and calibrated chaos.
“Good To Know” is a towering tour de force. Murph pounds a triple-time tattoo, Lou anchors the bottom with gritty bass fills. Meanwhile, J. runs roughshod over the barb-wire melody shape-shifting between wah-wah riff-age and supersonic shards of phased distortion.
On “Mirror” a stutter-step rhythm is wed to spiky bass lines and a cluster of shuddering guitar chords. The lyrics offer a bleak portrait of a conflicted cuckold; “I’ve been crawling around since I met you, I’ve been wondering how not to upset you/It seems only the time that I left you.” J.’s yowling solo erases all traces of romantic ambivalence.
The action slows on two tracks, “Be A Part” and “Knocked Around.” On the former, ringing Byrdsy guitar licks on the verse expand and accelerate on the chorus adding kaleidoscopic chords that bleed through the yearning melody. The lyric repeats one lonely refrain, “brokenhearted.”
On the latter J.’s falsetto vocals lightly lattice dusty electric arpeggios, roiling bass and tumbling drums. The tune recalls the meandering charms of Neil Young’s early ‘70s music. Out of the blue the song wildly recalibrates, switching gears and adding cyclonic guitar, crashing drums and thrashy bass. Spitfire riffs spark and pin-wheel toward a down-tuned, grungy conclusion. Oh yeah, as to the lyrics, apparently J. misses someone.
Other interesting tracks include the slash and burn freneticism of “I Told Everyone” and the rollicking romantic post-mortem “Lost All Day.” Lou Barlow gets his chance to shine on his two compositions, “Love Is” and “Left/Right.”
Cloaked in the skronky serape of Country Rock, “Love Is” offers this piquant observation; “Here, here comes the age where forgiveness is a sin/If you’re still so full of rage only poison lets you in, don’t forget it, and don’t deny what you saw/Love is the law, love is the law.”
“Left/Right” closes out the album. A pensive rocker, the song is powered by a martial cadence, rubbery bass and slippery, sidewinder guitar. Lou positively croons elliptical lyrics that parse the rituals of love and salvation; “I lied and I lied, I lied to believe and slowly I caved, let fear claim my faith/Till you broke me down spoke to my voice, got carried away…” An oddly hopeful finish to a quietly commanding record!
Ever since they resumed recording in 2007, Dinosaur jr. has been consistently excellent, building on the sound they created in the ‘80s. Give A Glimpse Of What Yer Not is a worthy addition to their catalog of work. These Punk pioneers headline Pappy & Harriet’s Desert Stars Festival on September 24th.