Dinosaur Jr were perhaps the most-obvious-to-snaffle-up alternative band in the shopping spree undertaken by major labels in the early 90s. Slacker to the core, they had the musical chops, indie rock-club cool and guitar squawl that appealed to a cross-section of buyers, from floppy-haired indie kid to hardcore enthusiast. The band’s earlier releases on Homestead and especially SST, had already given them a significant enough fanbase to have a head-start when they signed with Warner’s off-shoot, Blanco Y Negro. The timing wasn’t great – bassist, Lou Barlow had been jettisoned by leader J Mascis in a struggle for power than was really a non-starter. Mascis, despite his seemingly quiet and withdrawn demeanour, had his identity and playing stamped everywhere he could on Dinosaur Jr’s sound, from his vocals and lead guitar to re-recording Lou’s basslines to playing the drum parts for Murph to simply mimic.
A false dawn of sorts, ‘The Wagon’, released on Sub Pop, featured an assembled band featuring bassist Donna Dresch (Team Dresch and, briefly, Screaming Trees), guitarist Don Fleming and drummer Jay Spiegel from Gumball. It was this thumping, catchy calling card which Mascis used to shop the band around, ultimately snagging a major label deal. By the time they delivered the first album, they were down to two – Mascis and Murph, though the latter’s drums were largely replaced by the former’s admittedly better percussion. Despite the lack of input from anyone else, Green Mind is far from a one-tone collection with guitar solos kept to relatively manageable frequency and enough indie-schmindieness to keep more delicate listeners bobbing their heads with respectful angst. If there’s one thing which is regularly referenced by people in regards to the band, other than Mascis’ extraordinary lethargy away from the stage, it’s their outrageous volume. Whilst simply turning up the sound whilst listening at home scarcely prepares you for a band which has been accused of making audiences vomit through their sheer volume, you can hear the drums on tracks like ‘Blowing It’ barely able to withstand ther thrashing they’re receiving. Extras like the 7″ edit of ‘The Wagon’, the excellent ‘Whatever’s Cool with Me’ and the punishing ‘Pebbles and Weeds’ are welcome, though you’ll have to double-dip to get an extra disc worth of goodies
In 1993 Where You Been was everywhere – even if you weren’t anywhere near ‘D’ in the record store, you would almost certainly find it nestled next to Pavement or Jane’s Addiction. It just appeared. Though most of the drums on the album were still J’s work, bass duties were now taken by ex-Snakepit singer and guitarist, Mike Johnson. It holds together very well, though early purists might bemoan the melodies and the standard structure of many of the tracks. The rest of us can rejoice in one of alternative music’s grandstand album openings: ‘Out There’, ‘Start Choppin” and ‘What Else is New’. J’s vocals are now fully horizontal, seemingly waking himself up on occasions he drifts into falsetto, otherwise barely able to muster a yawned gripe. The vocals remain a polarising factor when judging the band. Personally, I’ve always felt they undid a lot of the other work. ‘On the Way’ could’ve have been a huge cross-over anthem, whereas it’s impossible to imagine J’s croak finding fans beyond the indie fraternity. ‘Goin’ Home’ is as good an example as any of a song which typfies their description as “ear bleeding country”, though just in case you weren’t convinced, a bonus cover of ‘Hot Burrito #2’ by Flying Burrito Brothers drives the point home. Great to hear ‘Missing Link’ again too, the track from another album you couldn’t move for during that 12 months, the Judgement Night soundtrack.
Onto their third label for a major, 1994s Without a Sound, and behind the scenes it seemed that Dinosaur Jr’s chance at cracking the mainstream was all but done. It didn’t stop the superb ‘Feel the Pain’ getting a Spike Jonze-directed video (nor the track reaching number 25 in the UK charts). Neither did it stop the album being well-received critically nor achieving their highest sales for any of their releases. However, Warners had either given up on trying to work out whom the band appealed to or had sensed that the appetite for alt rock had rapidly dissipated (or at least the market had decided which bands to stick with). The album is perhaps more thoughtful but certainly more introspective. Furious guitar work gives way more often to yearning and genuine sadness, with even the hectic ‘Grab It’ packaged with grief. The solos are still there (and make no mistake, Mascis is an extraordinary guitarist) but the songs feel like self-medication more than sounds for a generation. ‘I Don’t Think So’ is still fantastic but as a whole, it’s an album which pushes the band to be all things for all men, yet clearly isn’t. Bonus track ‘Blah’ was used in Melrose Place. What odd times they were.
The final disc of this box set, 1997s Hand it Over, had no push at all from their label, inevitably leaving it as ‘the one people forget about’. I hadn’t forgotten about it but likewise, can’t remember when I last heard it. Possibly in 1997. It deserves much better. J sounds better vocally than perhaps any of his releases prior and the combination of he and Johnson has developed to allow the songs to truly shine. ‘Nothin’s Goin On’ could have been the song to break them into the mainstream had it appeared two or three albums before. At eight minutes, ‘Alone’ is perhaps a parting statement from Mascis to the label, a solo-dominated assault which takes Neil Young’s most monolithic slabs of sound into the stratosphere. It’s a happy album, perhaps as J had already decided the end was nigh on wanted the world to know that this wasn’t surrender, just freedom. If you feel the urge to dig into this set, you owe it to yourself to give this a priority listen, it’s a surprising zinger. Bonus tracks include the Brian Wilson cap-doff, ‘Take a Run at the Sun’. A great band, though not always a loveable one, if you’ve thrown all your cds away or have realised that vinyl collecting is only for the rich, this is a must-purchase.
Buy Puke & Cry by Dinosaur Jr here