In mid-2004, there began murmurings that Merge Records would be reissuing the first three Dinosaur Jr. albums. Then came news that the original line-up would convene for a tour. This seemed odd since ringleader J. Mascis and bassist Lou Barlow had avoided one another's company for at least 15 years, but this seemed also familiar, in a way.
Here we go again: Great band creates fast and changes a few lives. Great band breaks up or fizzles out. Great band undergoes reissue project, reunites with original line-up, or both. At some juncture in the past 10 years, this became a common script in underground rock. Only one aspect of this new dynamic has been consistent: the inconsistency of the results. But consider the worthiness of a Dinosaur Jr. reunion a cinch. Word is widespread that the shows avoid any and all of the trappings that plague reunion tours: Expect to have your aural clock cleaned with only songs from those first three albums.
In 1985, J. (Joseph) Mascis, Lou Barlow, and Patrick Murphy (aka Murph), all in the vicinity of 19 years old, recorded the debut Dinosaur album. The three Massachusetts buddies hailed from hardcore backgrounds. Barlow and Mascis were in the revered but largely unheard Deep Wound, and Murph was in a band called All White Jury. But like any reasonable, ambitious teens who cut their musical teeth in that arena, the allure of hardcore had a fast-approaching expiration date. Mascis' friend Gerard Cosloy, who later launched Matador Records, was then working at Homestead. Cosloy agreed to release a record by Mascis, sound unheard. Recorded for $500, the record was an eclectic, individualistic anomaly set against the college-rock/indie climate of the day.
Consider it a set of superior reinterpretations of what Mascis was then digging into: the Meat Puppets, the Minutemen, Neil Young, country music, the Cure, R.E.M., general hardcore, and Black Sabbath. That it is eclectic, and succeeds at being so, is not the remarkable feature about Dinosaur. That it makes uniquely better music out of its influences is the golden achievement, along with a few other things: Mascis was a savant with that old punk-rock hobgoblin, the guitar solo. Similar to his unwitting protégé, Built to Spill's Doug Martsch, Mascis is a guitar god for people who hate the idea of guitar solos. There are guitar solos all over the debut, just like there are guitar solos all over Mascis' entire career. Hüsker Dü may have been one of the first post-hardcore bands to lay beautiful melodies on top of noise, but theirs was a one-dimensional affair. Dinosaur, as you may have guessed, is harder to pin down.
A deafening silence followed the release. People either didn't know what to make of it or didn't care. Sonic Youth cared, though, and took the little band on tour, the little band that was steadily experimenting with bowel-voiding volume, distortion, velocity, and exponentially improved songs, all of which are captured on 1987's You're Living All Over Me. (The title is a reference to inter-band tension.) Released on SST through the help of Sonic Youth, the album is another anomaly, one that would differ by making a mark.
The first 30 seconds of "Little Furry Things" is a capsule peek at what would saturate indie labels for years to come. The song stands out as Dinosaur Jr.'s defining moment. The furious noise and detached screams giving way to an obscenely catchy verse/chorus would be rendered formulaic by imitators, but the point of origin is so perfect that it doesn't sound dated. There are no losers on You're Living All Over Me. It burns hard and loud straight through, minus Barlow's "Poledo," the no-fidelity album closer that hinted at his next project, Sebadoh, and the soon-to-be overstaffed world of four-track bedroom songwriters.
Unfortunately, the lasting influence of this album tends to overshadow what makes it special. Dinosaur Jr. (the "Jr." added to avoid a lawsuit from a same-named hippie band) toured the U.K. behind You're Living All Over Me, and, as the U.K. press is wont to do with enigmatic American weirdos, they became condescendingly obsessed with Mascis & Co., alternately poking fun at Mascis' monosyllabic aloofness and then hailing the band as geniuses. The ultimate compliment came when British bands took what the Jesus & Mary Chain had been doing and threw Dinosaur Jr. into it, creating what we now know as the shoegazer movement.
The third album, 1988's Bug, is seen critically as the stepchild of the three -- the beginning of the end. Barlow was on his way out, and the album admittedly had more in common with what came after (the Dinosaur Jr. of the '90s). Still, Bug is strong enough to stay in the room with its predecessors. This is, after all, the album that opens with "Freak Scene," and, back when these things used to happen, it was a big college-radio hit. If you lend an ear to indie rock circa 1989-1994, it seems that "Freak Scene" might have inadvertently caused the formation of a lot of bands; it was a landmark underground moment, sort of like a "Smells Like Teen Spirit" that the mainstream missed.
Save for the lesser "Pond Song," Bug does not suffer from filler. "No Bones," "Yeah We Know," and "Budge" are gorgeous keepers, and the album closer, "Don't," is a terrifying, antagonistic therapy session. The story goes that Mascis instructed Barlow to repeatedly scream "Why don't you like me?" (the only lyrics) over the song's almost six minutes of oddball metal. The two had not been talking for some time.
Barlow "departed" and focused on Sebadoh, his eventual day in the sun. Nirvana took a dumbed-down version of You're Living All Over Me and Bug all the way to the top. Mascis released Dinosaur Jr. albums until 1997, a career chapter that flirted with alt-rock success (Lollapalooza slot, brief run of "Start Choppin'" on radio and MTV in 1993/94), before getting together with Mike Watt and the Stooges' Ron Asheton for the Fog earlier this decade. Then, as a year of touring has proved, Barlow and Mascis apparently decided to bury the hatchet and get back together. Good for us.