April 8, 2005 at 9:31 am #47770
Pretty good review. Overly long and wordy in classic Pitchfork fashion:
Dinosaur / You’re Living All Over Me / Bug
[Homestead; 1985 / SST; 1987 / SST; 1998; r: 2005]
Rating: 6.2 / 9.1 / 7.3
I’m shocked at the relatively low-key reaction to Merge’s Dinosaur Jr. reissues. Do today’s cardigan undergrad massive not appreciate one of the key DNA strands of what we once unironically referred to as Alternative Rock? Was this the final victory of new wave? Will no one else admit to sporting a homemade puffy paint Black Flag t-shirt for the whole of ninth grade?
It’s not wholly surprising, given the deathless nature of early 80s nostalgia at the moment. The SST bands (and Dinosaur were proud to be on the label until they realized Greg Ginn’s accountant was Houdini) rocked unashamedly, something very few bands do in 2005. It’s understandable, given how many current rock bands came up in the 90s, a decade of unashamed rocking by unreconstructed doofuses like Collective Soul. Irony and earnestness are a precarious balance, and once hardcore went mainstream, beginning with Nirvana and peaking with Dashboard, a swerve towards brittleness and arched brows was inevitable, maybe even desirable. (Bright Eyes, "O.C." Mixtapes, and Matrix-rocking girl-pop shoot that theory to hell. Oh well!)
The band was nothing if not earnest, but those impulses were balanced by a gentle, aw-shucks bewilderment. They were– and either enough time has now elapsed, or I’m going to turn into a pumpkin for writing this– the quintessential slacker band. I’m not going to detail the WMD-grade antipathy going on in the band at the time these albums were recorded, but clearly J, Lou, and Murph had yet to develop what Dr. Phil would deem fully formed personalities. They’re forgiven this because, in true "Behind the Music" style, their inability to interact with any sense of decency may have been part of the combustion that made them one of the best guitar rock bands of my lifetime.
Dinosaur were initially called Deep Wound, and played a particularly speedy and rectilinear form of hardcore that somehow wound its way across the pond and into the hands of the bands who would basically create grindcore and death metal. After the usual line-up shuffling (off to college, home from college, I don’t like you anymore) and maturation (wow, there’s other music than rat-a-tat 200bpm speedcore out there), they became Dinosaur. J Mascis switched from drums to a guitar that he took to playing as loud and hard as possible because it didn’t have the bruising capabilities of his beloved kit. Lou Barlow played bass, not badly but too enthralled by half with Peter Hook. Murph played drums and was Murph.
Dinosaur (the Jr. got safety pinned on after they became famous when a dinosaur Dinosaur came crawling out of the woodwork to protest) is, like many albums made by people just out of high school, stylistically incontinent. (This a polite way of saying it’s a fucking mess.) There was all this cool music out there, new and old, and Dinosaur wanted to sound like all of it, with a hardcore base. Opener "Bulbs of Passion" cribs from Sonic Youth; "Forget the Swan" is an outtake from The Cure’s Three Imaginary Boys; "Cats in a Bowl" shoulda called itself "Burger Marionettes", etc.
All the songs feel like they go on longer than they should. The confusion is right there on the back cover photo. J wears his love of the Birthday Party atop his head. (Nice pendant, dungeon master.) Lou looks like Sally Jesse Raphael has just violently possessed the body of Superchunk’s Mac with styling by Bill Cosby. Murph looks like he should be working at 1985 Texaco (or be in Journey’s "Separate Ways" video). This is actually quite charming in a moment when bands spring fully formed from a stylist’s imagination into their perfectly mediated debut albums within six months (coughkasbiankaiserchiefsbraverycough).
It’s amazing what a little growing up in public and support from your idols will do for you. In two short years, Dino went from bar band nobodies to a pop-noise outfit with a panzer attack and a heart of gold. The move to SST surely bolstered their confidence, and J’s zen despondency over the guitar (he may have wanted it to sound more like drums, but you get the feeling he would have been just as happy playing a zither if it could get really heavy) burst into a particular volcanic ooze of proto-indie.
Dino cut all the excess ruffage from their diet, and Murph and Lou locked into a tuff little unit that made Joe "I like rock, me" Carducci and Ginn want to sign them in the first place. Even the solos feel like they’re being corralled by their burgeoning pop instincts. If they lumber, it’s a tuneful lumbering. They discovered the sweet spot between Black Sabbath and the Buzzcocks, which every carpetbagging grunge chancer (and one or two geniuses) took to the mall a few years later. (Though, to be fair, without the grunge chancers, I’d have maybe never heard of Dino in the first place.)
The album opens with skreeching chalkboard feedback before switching up for REM engineered by Swamp Thing. The opening of "Tarpit" casually invents all the parts of emo Rites of Spring didn’t invent first, but then decides to, like, totally fucking shred. "Poledo", on the other hand, invents everything icky and solipsistic about indie rock in the 90s: Lou fishing for chicks in his bedroom with a four-track, an acoustic guitar, and some Stockhausen-by-way-of-Fisher-Price pause-button edits. It all climaxes with their immortal (and surprisingly reverent) cover of the Cure’s "Just Like Heaven", which is a lot of fun but can’t hold a candle to any of the live versions of this era, where J took the second solo as an opportunity to rend a hole in the space-time continuum. If you have any interest at all in rock music, the electric guitar, good songs, the freed weed, or teenage ennui, buy this album. Key lines: "I’ll be waiting by your window/ Please come pat me on the head/ I just want to find out/ What you’re nice to me for."
Bug was recorded a year later as Dino crested on a wave of goodwill, good press, and international touring. "Freak Scene" is probably indie rock’s greatest guitar performance and the band’s greatest pop song, somehow finding room for Psychedelic Furs jangle, Edge-style ascending harmonies, Eddie Van Halen in the drunk tank, pickled country, and a cherry on top in three and a half minutes without feeling at all cluttered. "What a mess," maybe, but worlds away from their debut. Bug is a tighter and cleaner a whole, and you can hear why they would soon be courted by major labels getting their noses open by first alt-rock drops of blood.
You can also hear the influence/feedback loop Dino had after razing London, specifically the combo of distant sounding feedback washes and Byrdsy plucking that closes "No Bones", a sound cut-rate shoegazers would milk for another six years at least. "Yeah We Know" turns like a tank’s treads flipped in the mud, each crunching snare hit at the end of the verse tricking you into think the song’s about to end. "Pond Song" showcases what a subtly clever drummer Murph was when the noise got stripped away, and "Budge" is a testament to the virtues of straight-ahead pounding. "Keep The Glove" is a jaunty little end tune, but it was pretty sadistic to make Lou scream "why don’t you like me?" over and over on "Don’t", when it was increasingly clear on stage that no one in this band liked anyone. It all collapsed, absurdly half-assedly, shortly after the Bug tour when J made Murph fire Lou who didn’t even get the hint at first.
Dino were pretty much done at this point, though Mascis released a few more decent albums under the name– Where You Been, in particular, was a fine slice of overlong, rangy grunge pop. Barlow formed Sebadoh, indie rock’s longest running ugly late-night post-breakup phone call, and then what Stephen Malkmus neatly summarized as "the thing with the loops." Murph diminished into the west and remained Murph. The world suffered through a lot of bad loud-quiet-loud by guys in gas station jackets. The albums went out of print, and we sufficed with an aptly named best-of, Ear-Bleeding Country. Now Merge has reissued them in excellent new mixes (the SST version of You’re Living All Over Me in particular sounded as if it had been recorded on gauze through a metal funnel) with good photos, liner notes, and slightly rejigged tracklists. Unfashionable or not, here’s a band who cut through on nothing but heft, volume, songcraft, earnestness, and a kind of underrated virtuosity. Even if the on-record response was whatever, man.
-Jess Harvell, April 8, 2005
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