Dinosaur/You’re Living All Over Me/Bug
In 1988, the little-known Amherst, Massachusetts, trio Dinosaur was forced to change their band name after a group of California rock has-beens called the Dinosaurs threatened legal action. Thus, Dinosaur became Dinosaur Jr., an amendment that many fans considered a travesty. But the new name proved far more durable and descriptive: Dinosaur Jr. weren’t just immense, they were also agile. The band moved fluidly across styles and dynamics, their sludgy sound lumbering mightily but changing direction abruptly like some prehistoric predator.
In the beginning, the band -- guitarist J Mascis, bass player Lou Barlow, and drummer Murph -- wanted to make ears bleed. They played their shows at maximum volume, and that more-is-more aesthetic informed their first album, which at the time of its release in 1986 was eponymously titled.
Dinosaur, which Merge Records is reissuing along with its two follow-ups, sounds rough and unformed in spots, but overall it remains as adventurous and as cagey as ever. Mascis’ songwriting isn’t as consistent or as confident as it will become, but the songs’ slippery structures and stoner melodies announce a distinct identity composed of unexpected musical contradictions. Mascis pounds his guitar like it was a drum kit (he had previously played drums in punk footnote Deep Wound), but he intuitively smooshes hardcore punk, heavy metal, psychedelic pop, and country rock into the same tight space. Amid the din, he sings in a hangdog voice that moves slowly and sustains notes slightly longer than normal, which twists the melodies into new and uncomfortable shapes.
As adventurous a guitarist as Mascis was, the tight rhythm section of Barlow and Murph allowed him to fire off every weapon in his arsenal. On 1987’s You’re Living All Over Me -- arguably the band’s finest moment -- “The Lung” shapeshifts fluidly from post-hardcore restraint to R.E.M. jangle and back again, and that’s just the intro. But it’s Murph, not Mascis, who leads the attack, with Barlow shouldering the heft. Beginning with the riotous “Little Fury Things” and ending with their notorious cover of the Cure’s “Just Like Heaven” (with its notoriously abrupt ending), You’re Living All Over Me airs the band’s internal conflicts, specifically Barlow’s and Mascis’ growing animosity toward each other. “I’m waiting/Please come back/I got the guts now/To meet your eye,” Mascis sings on the aptly titled “SludgeFeast,” presumably to the bass player. As a result of such open hostility, the songs are fraught with frighteningly palpable tension that still sounds raw and wiry nearly 20 years later.
That conflict eventually exploded, but not on record. Bug, the band’s final album with its original line-up, seems set on proving that Dinosaur Jr. was more than just Mascis showboating. Instead of the rangy, guitar-centric jams of the previous albums, Bug contains Mascis’ most traditional and concise song structures. On the one hand, this approach produced “Freak Scene,” a late-’80s alternative landmark and as good a reason as any band has given for staying together despite all the shit. On the other hand, the remaining songs largely lack the sense of adventure and surprise that amplifies Dinosaur and You’re Living All Over Me.
That musical dynamic proved impossible to maintain given the volatile personal dynamics between Mascis and Barlow. Fed up, the bass player left the band and formed Sebadoh. Mascis and Murph recorded two more albums together before the drummer left, and Mascis recorded two more albums with a new line-up before Dinosaur Jr. became altogether extinct. Currently traveling the reunion-tour circuit, Mascis, Barlow, and Murph are playing their first shows together in over 15 years. They’ve aged considerably since then, but these albums sound as fresh and as vital as ever.
-- Stephen Deusner
Grades: Dinosaur: A-; You’re Living All Over Me: A; Bug: B+