One of the great diplomatic challenges facing underground rockers in the mid-’80s was how to repeal the punk era’s edict against guitar heroics (which actually did nothing to undercut the instrument’s hegemony, except to shelve it for a brief synth-pop sabbatical) without raising suspicions of cultural revisionism or unseemly nostalgia. In a gambit that proved useful for other iconoclast conundrums of burning desire for things deemed uncool (like major-label funding or vast commercial success), Amherst, Massachusetts, guitarist and singer J (Joseph) Mascis hit upon a solution. (In the shadow of Sonic Youth, who themselves were wrapped in a curtain of radical anti-rock experimentalism, he wasn’t the only or even the first one. But he did become the famous and influential archetype that explained, if not excused, all the subsequent claimants.) Mascis, a genuine introvert and slacker at heart, simply turned the toddler’s I-didn’t-do-it denial into an indolent I-didn’t-know-I-was-doin’-nothin’ shrug, sending up woolly clouds of stun volume and careless distortion that couldn’t possibly indicate any personal effort or conscious responsibility. That he’s neither a traditional nor a good lead guitarist (he’s actually a hopeless Neil Young wanna- be) and that he can’t sing for shit above an enervated mumble/whine backs up the implicit contention of amateurism run amok. That he’s kept his process slow and steady, helps out cool bands and is capable of sputtering out a monumental pop song now and then has sustained Mascis as a primo indie-rock god, a prominent lead guitarist in a genre that doesn’t generally need or tolerate such overt wankery.
These masters of high-decibel manipulation at one time had difficulty playing more than a single gig per club because of their ear-damaging attack. Prior to forming Dinosaur, J Mascis (originally a drummer) and bassist Lou Barlow played together in Deep Wound (featured on the 1984 Conflict compilation Bands That Could Be God); Mascis switched to guitar and recruited drummer Murph (Patrick Murphy), formerly of All White Jury, to form a new group.
Dinosaur finds the trio sounding like ten different bands on as many songs. Mascis, also the primary singer and songwriter, employs an array of electronic devices to squeeze a myriad of variations from harmonic structures, utilizing a variety of tones from loud to louder to loudest. Meat Puppets, Neil Young and Sonic Youth comparisons are inevitable, but Dinosaur’s raucous individuality is beyond dispute. After legal threats from the West Coast summer-of-love vets calling themselves the Dinosaurs, Dinosaur politely became Dinosaur Jr.
The band further reduced its already minimal pop factor on the deafening You’re Living All Over Me, which was briefly issued under the original name and then given its Jr for full-scale release. A brilliant, brutal hailstorm of hyper-distorted riffs and pulverizing basslines, it’s harder, louder and meaner than nine out of ten heavy metal albums. The multi-sectioned songs change direction so frequently that it’s hard to tell them apart, as the power-trio assault is modulated by graceful, looming melodies that rise like mist out of the pedal-mess. The monolithic album is marred only by Barlow’s self- indulgent “Poledo.” (The CD adds a tone-deaf B-side rendition of Peter Frampton’s “Show Me the Way,” proof that any cultural atrocity is admissible so long as it’s accorded full disrespect.)
Bug was preceded by “Freak Scene,” one of J’s greatest pop songs and an enduring indie single — the band’s bruising delivery of such an accessible melody is half of its enormous appeal. Largely a continuation and expansion upon Living, Bug wanders into folkier pastures with the lilting “Pond Song” and experiments with primal scream on the electric axe-murder of “Don’t,” a lease-breaker if ever there was one. The album was followed by yet another ironic single, this time a cover of the Cure’s “Just Like Heaven” (which fits Dinosaur Jr’s style perfectly) and two rough B-sides.
Barlow left to concentrate on Sebadoh, and Dinosaur Jr increasingly became the J Mascis Experience. An attempt at an indie-rock supergroup pairing J and Murph with Don Fleming and Jay Spiegel fell apart almost as soon as it was announced (although the ex-B.A.L.L.istics did play on “The Wagon”), and Mascis distracted himself for months with the Velvet Monkeys and Gobblehoof (on whose debut EP he played drums). SST gathered up its Dinosaur Jr A- and B-sides and issued the eight-song Fossils, which is actually a useful compendium of the early years’ most colorful souvenirs: “Freak Scene,” “Show Me the Way,” a cover of the Cure’s “Just Like Heaven,” Living‘s “Little Fury Things.”
When Mascis returned nearly three years later, he was signed to a major label and, like Evan Dando, recording essentially as a solo artist but using a group name. The clear-sounding Green Mind has a surprising measure of propulsive energy and acoustic-guitar diversity (which underscores the Neil Young resemblance), and sets Dinosaur Jr tradition by kicking off with a great single, “The Wagon,” the inevitable follow-up to “Freak Scene.” The pickings after that, however, are slim. “Water” and “Green Mind” are the only genuinely memorable items in a lackluster bunch; Mascis seems to have expended all his creative energy in learning the syncopated beat of “Muck” and inflating the leaky atmospheric tire that supports “Thumb,” which parts previously uncharted waters in the realm of hypnoriff (live dates in early ’91 deputised Screaming Trees bassist Van Conner to stunning effect). More than a lazy sound, Green Mind is the sound of laziness.
Accurately billed as “one new single and 7 B sides,” Whatever’s Cool With Me again starts out fine, with the engaging titular ode to apathy, sung in a just-woke-up croak at a relatively rousing tempo. With one exception, the rest is expendable sliding right on through to awful. Long concert versions of “Thumb” and the older “Keep the Glove” are sloppy and boring; the non-LP studio tracks — all cut strictly solo, four of them previously used on the British 12-inch of “The Wagon” — slapdash and sung in various states of tuneless disrepair. Only the brisk and tight “Not You Again,” in which Mascis marvels woefully at “the mess I made again…how do I do it?,” displays the kind of small effort it takes to elevate slack rubbish into slacker art.
The same minimal exertion describes Mascis’ 15 minutes’ worth of generic contributions to the score of Gas Food Lodging: short, pleasant, simple and restrained song- sketch exercises on acoustic and electric guitar, piano, bass and drums. The rest of the album (co-credited to Barry Adamson, but featuring tracks by Victoria Williams, Nick Cave, Renegade Soundwave and the Velvet Monkeys) is far more accomplished.
Whether Mascis’ resumption of the recording process as a collective band effort (with bassist Mike Johnson and Murph) explains the great leap forward of Where You Been or is merely coincidental with a sudden upturn in his creative ambition, the bottom line is that it’s the first Dinosaur Jr album that doesn’t hinge on sensory overload as its primary selling point. Initiative elevates and articulates material that, in the past, might have been left to moulder under a burial pyre of thoughtless distortion. There’s still plenty of fuzzed-out squalling, but that’s only one facet of a more rounded effort. The ten- track campaign is characterized by concerted craft, solid songwriting (the standouts are “Start Choppin,” “On the Way” and “Get Me,” none of them in the pole position) and credible (if creaky) singing. A winsome falsetto, string quartet, piano and tympani increases the Neil Young resemblance of “Not the Same”; the vocal arrangement, acoustic picking and organ bed of “Goin’ Home” and the violins on “What Else Is New” are all useful innovative touches. Although Dinosaur Jr remains an odd diversion demanding tolerance and indulgence, Where You Been extends itself as Mascis never before has.
And may never again. Without a Sound, recorded as a duo with Johnson, demonstrates that making peace with old bugbears like accurate singing and considered instrumental complexity is no substitute for inspiration, which seems to have gone missing. Imperceptibly easing off the accelerator, Mascis allows the creative tension to go slack, allowing nearly good songs to pass by like gray- suited paraders with hangovers. The sheepish recriminations of “Yeah Right” (with Thalia Zedek of Come singing along) head past repetition to the ledge of self-parody. Acoustic- based arrangements frame “Outta Hand” and “Seemed Like the Thing to Do” to good effect, but only the latter, a simple refrain repeated endlessly, manages to scratch an irritatingly gentle message into the mental bark. “I feel the pain of everyone / Later I feel nothing,” Mascis sings in the leadoff “Feel the Pain” (which has half a hook leading into the chorus and nothing else to recommend it). Point taken. Having completely mastered the art of surging guitar-powered backdrops for his twinned lazy/high vocals, Mascis makes a consistently friendly noise whose pleasing effect doesn’t last as long as the album. No gain, no pain.
Considering that Mascis is unlikely to ever be mistaken for a singer, it’s worrisome to hear what a crummy guitarist he is. Recorded on a ’95 solo acoustic tour, Martin + Me runs through a dubious assortment of Dinosaur Jr oldies (“Get Me” and “Not You Again,” but also “Thumb,” “Goin’ Home,” “Drawerings” and other minor album cuts) and a quartet of diverse covers (songs by the Smiths, Wipers, Carly Simon amd Lynyrd Skynyrd) with the nimble fingers of a frostbite victim. Strumming badly with a wavering sense of rhythm, picking fills like a three- lesson amateur who forgot to practice, and generally showing less than no care or concern, Mascis could just as well be any no-talent singing these songs — but he’s not. There’s a lesson about fame and flimsiness in here someplace but it would be too much work to try and think what it might be.
Swish is Murph’s trio with singer/bassist Lori Martin and guitarist Joe Boyle. Led by Martin’s flexible voice and personal, provocative songs, Supermax (produced and released by Don Fleming) is a strong, tuneful and diverse seven-song debut, in line with various Northeastern bands — other than Murph’s alma pater.