Dinosaur; You're LIving All Over Me; Bug
By: Eric Greenwood
It seems like it would have taken so much more than a trio of reissues on Merge to reunite the original line-up of Dinosaur Jr. The notoriously acrimonious split between J Mascis and Lou Barlow has been the stuff of legend in indie circles for years. Getting original drummer Murph back into the fold couldn't have been easy, either, as he was unceremoniously sacked amidst Dinosaur Jr.'s major label descent into mid'90's mediocrity.
When Dinosaur Jr. hit the scene twenty years ago (then known as Dinosaur- the Jr. was forcefully tacked on after a legal dispute with some random psychedelic band), the underground scene had little more than college radio spreading its gospel. The American bands to watch at the time – Big Black, Minutemen, Sonic Youth and Husker Du – all represented fractured reactions to punk from different angles. Dinosaur's noisy sonic assaults dabbled in hardcore, sludge-rock, psychedelia, and classic rock, offering yet another splintering of punk's roots. It was an uneven beginning, and the band earned a name more as a result of its ear-splittingly loud live shows than it did through its songcraft.
That all changed by 1987 when the band signed with Greg Ginn of Black Flag's SST label and released the classic You're Living All Over Me. Mascis' songwriting finally came into focus underneath the haze of noise, revealing a strange amalgam of influences ranging from Neil Young to New Order to the Meat Puppets. The dichotomy of his explosive lead guitar and his introverted, whiny vocal ramblings pushed Dinosaur Jr. into uncharted waters, predating and anticipating the entire slacker ennui of the early '90's' explosion of indie rock and Nirvana.
The inherent catchiness of "Little Fury Things" showed remarkable development beyond the band's heavier, lo-fi beginnings. Barlow's bass lines were New Order-influenced melodic leads, which grounded Mascis' showy, effects-laden guitar parts. The unorthodox mix of the record makes it sound raw and energetic to this day, if a bit thin. But classic songwriting holds it all together. "The Lung" still crackles through the speakers packed with enough stunning guitar parts for multiple songs. And Barlow hints at his Sebadoh legacy on the bedroom experiment, "Poledo."
For Bug (the last album that the original trio recorded), Mascis took on a more dictatorial role in the band, which raised tensions, specifically with the prolific Barlow. Having mapped out everybody's parts himself, Mascis pretty much told Murph and Barlow what to play and where. The record doesn't suffer much from the internal strain and the live shows actually benefited with Mascis and Barlow turning their anger and resentment towards each other into explosive performances. The entire mood of the album is captured on the single "Freak Scene"- a jangly indie rock classic, showcasing Dinosaur Jr.'s curious ability to sound simultaneously disinterested and sincere.
With its link to Sonic Youth (Lee Ranaldo sang back up on "Little Fury Things") and its automatic status by being an SST band, Dinosaur Jr.'s reputation was exploding by the time Bug came out. Even though this line-up would end within a few months of Bug's release, the mold was set to allow Mascis to carry on as Dinosaur Jr. to varying degrees of success almost a decade longer. Looking back it's obvious that Dinosaur Jr. helped usher in the wave of grunge that enabled Nirvana to be in the right place at the right time. Mascis' penchant for combining multiple changes and diverging influences is a style that obviously runs through indie rock today.
Watching the original Dinosaur Jr. play "The Lung" on CBS' Late Late Show two weeks ago was truly surreal. It was uncanny and unpredictable and, most importantly, it rocked. I know reunions are ubiquitous these days, as bands try to cash in on nostalgia and waning levels of fame anyway they can, but Dinosaur Jr.'s regrouping seems timeless and important, regardless of the motives.