Of all the bands closely associated with The Year Punk Broke, Dinosaur Jr. is simultaneously amongst the most enduring and enigmatic.
Singer, principal songwriter, and lead guitarist J Mascis was an introverted frontman with autocratic tendencies. Original bass player Lou Barlow was a sensitive, thin-skinned songwriting talent of his own, whose personality clashed persistently with Mascis’s controlling brooding. Even as the three-piece (along with drummer Patrick “Murph” Murphy) made landmark records, the antipathy became ever more severe, leading inexorably to Barlow’s dismissal in 1989. As Barlow found success with his new band Sebadoh, Mascis continued with new bass player Mike Johnson and drummer Murph. Although the split was laden with animosity — Barlow wrote several nasty songs about Mascis, who in turn perhaps more hurtfully didn’t bother responding — the creative breakup proved propitious for band and audience alike. Sebadoh, in its various iterations, went on to be an important, long-running contributor to the cultural space, while for at least a few years Dinosaur Jr. continued firing on all cylinders.
Following a lengthy run of perfect to near-perfect material, the wheels seemed to come off creatively a bit for Dinosaur Jr. with their 1994 release Without A Sound and its follow-up, 1997’s Hand It Over. Neither was terrible, and both featured a number of winning moments, but given the sublime nature of their achievements to date, the signs of artistic fatigue were difficult to ignore. Perhaps sensing the same, Mascis abandoned the Dinosaur Jr. moniker and proceeded on as J Mascis and the Fog, often seeming eclipsed by the legendary stature of his previous band.
Then, 10 years after the fact and amidst a flurry of mainly ill-considered indie rock reunions, it was announced in 2007 that the original DJ lineup was reassembling for an album and tour. Overcoming reasonably managed expectations, the elder Dinosaur Jr. subsequently released two superb albums great enough to improve upon their already distinguished legacy. To say that a successful reunion of this kind is rare would be to vastly understate the point. Arguably, there is no precedent in rock ‘n’ roll.
So, with the third post-reunion DJ album, I Bet On Sky, due next month, we stop to consider: What has made Dinosaur Jr. such an unassailably resonant part of our lives, now going on three decades? Ultimately, despite the significant talent of Barlow (who could easily merit his own countdown) Dinosaur Jr. is really the J Mascis story. As Barlow himself put it in a 2012 interview: “Of course it’s J’s band.”
Mascis is a major talent whose essence can be difficult to define. As a singer, his indelible, slightly behind-the-beat drawl is often coupled with doubling and a surprisingly effective falsetto, suggesting something like late-period Sly Stone if he had somehow been transmogrified into the son of a dentist from Amherst, Mass. Unlike his once and future cohort Barlow, there is very little studied cleverness to Mascis’s lyrics. He has always favored simple rhymes laid over loud songs of personal disillusion. But Mascis’s capacity for a memorable turn of phrase should not be discounted. Despite his modesty in words and appearance, he has managed to render some of the unforgettable verses of his era: “Sometimes I don’t thrill you/Sometimes I think I’ll kill you/Just don’t let me fuck up will you?/And if I need a friend it’s still you.” Maybe it ain’t elegant poetry, but rarely has there been a better four-line take on modern love.
Distilled to its essence, Dinosaur Jr. has always been always about Mascis’s guitar. By the late 1980s, the notion of the “guitar hero” had mainly, and appropriately, been excised from the punk and indie-rock firmament. The previous three decades had produced an interminable parade of shredding guitar icons, from Clapton and Hendrix in the ’60s all the way to Stevie Ray Vaughn and Slash at around the time of Dinosaur’s formation. All of these individuals were involved in some terrific music, but the ace leadman had come to feel something like an appointed position, one increasingly clichéd and asinine. It made sense then that bands of the era seemed eager to change the meaning of guitar in a rock band, whether by bombing it back to stone age simplification Mudhoney-style, or appropriating Glenn Branca’s avant-garde approach for the rock idiom in the case of Sonic Youth. Fortunately, Mascis never got the memo. The very best Dinosaur Jr. songs consist of inescapable hooks and melodies that lead with steam engine inevitably towards a soaring, lyrical J Mascis solo — or occasionally two in one song. These exertions are thrilling, raising the bar of excitement even on lesser material. In this regard, Mascis is a highly unique product of his era. Take for example Stephen Malkmus — by any measure a gifted and inventive guitarist — but would anyone really sit through a particularly prosaic Pavement song simply to hear what he does on the solo? With Dinosaur Jr. it was always worth the wait. There are a few others in Mascis’s generation who manifest similar characteristics on guitar — it would be cool to hear a Mike Bloomfield/Stephen Stills-style “Super Session” with Mascis and Ira Kaplan or Doug Martsch — but no individual so successfully wed trad-rock tendencies with envelope-pushing music in quite the way Dinosaur Jr. managed to do.
So here we go again! A Countdown. As Dinosaur Jr. has rendered a minimum of three unimpeachable classics and debatably more than that, it is difficult to prize certain releases above others. So, once again: We offer the following not as gospel truth, but rather as a jumping off point for discussing one of the great and unique bands of our times. Start here and get to discussing in the comments.