[Editor's note: Dinosaur Jr. plays The Waiting Room, 6212 Maple St., tonight. Shearwater opens the show, and tickets are $20. For more info visit onepercentproductions.com.]
by Jesse D. Stanek
Dinosaur Jr. was one of the first bands I fell in love with as my childhood tastes matured from Top 40 schlep into something a bit more discerning, something with substance, integrity and grit.
It took a minute to get used to J Mascis’ gravely-cracked vocals, but the guitar melodies and rhythmic drive of the music was immediate, effective and gripping. You warm to Mascis’ voice, and eventually you come to love it. I now can’t imagine the loose-cannon, train-track, rumble-jumble of Dinosaur Jr. at their musical peak with any other voice. The match is beyond complimentary. Dinosaur Jr. has left a gigantic impression on a host of younger artists and I would guarantee many Omaha and Lincoln musicians would count DJ among some of their foremost musical inspirations.
“Back in the day I never would have dreamed that we’d still be around,” says notoriously laid-back drummer Murph, “Not at all. Back then our goal was just to get on SST (a record label), and we did that with Living All Over Me.”
Many rock aficionados would count the first three Dino Jr. records as the band’s gloriously untainted Holy Trinity. It’s an argument with merit. DJ differed from many of their 1980s contemporaries because they were harder to define, harder to pigeonhole with a lazy genre tag. The influence of classic rock, the ear-blowing volume (yeah, bring earplugs for this one folks), the loud-quiet dynamic (Dino Jr. was doing it before either hometown brethren The Pixies or Nirvana), and Mascis’ stoner-slack-jawed, laid-back vocals. The band wasn’t pop and they weren’t punk rock; they were their own musical entity. 1985’s Dinosaur, 1987’s You’re Living All Over Me and 1988’s Bug set a template the band thankfully never drifted too far from.
After bassist Lou Barlow was released from the band in 1989 and went on to form Sebadoh, the band released four albums in the 1990s with Murph parting ways in 1993. 1991’s Green Mind has been a disappointingly under-recognized and perhaps unfairly disparaged record. The sound was certainly a touch more refined and polished but not enough to take away from the authentic feel. The next record, Where You Been, was an alternative crossover, earning the band legions of college-radio lovers as fans. 1994’s Without A Sound began to show off the even-polished, steady-does-it keel that Mascis’ songwriting would develop into on the post-reunion records.
Fast forward to 2005. “I had approached J about a reunion,” Murph says. “Lou and I were both pretty psyched at the idea. I mean, Dinosaur was kind of a painful thing, the way things ended and what it meant to all of us. But it had definitely had its highpoints. I mean, we’re like a steamroller when we play together.”
Many reunion acts seem to just get on stage for a paycheck, a trip down memory lane and end up creating new music that is at best a watered-down version of what used to be, a sobering reminder of past ingenuity. It’s rare to see artists topping what they did the first time around. And that is exactly what Dinosaur Jr. has done on their latest I Bet On Sky. The record is two steps forward for a band that was already doing it right.
The sound is slightly more polished and in this instance that’s not a bad thing. The vocals are more accessible, the sound is more varied and perhaps easier to digest. “Almost Fare” has a funky roll to it, a lilting, head-nodding groove with the cleanest vocals any Dino Jr. record has ever had. I always thought that if J’s voice was a little softer, a little easier on the ears the first time around, then it could very well have been Dinosaur Jr. and not Nirvana that transformed the landscape of popular music at the time.
One of the cuts from Sky has already betting getting a fair bit of airplay. “Watch The Corners” takes the trademark DJ soft and loud formula and refines the idea into a more engaging and more mature song. A song that fits the band, a song that seems to be waiting for J’s cooler-than-you vocals to take off into new territory.
“I like the new record,” Murph says. “It’s poppier than the other two. J spent a lot of time on the vocals and I think you can tell. It shows. I don’t think it’s a return to form as much as it’s a continuation of what we’ve been doing.”
Jesse D. Stanek is a Hear Nebraska contributor. He's striving for eudaimonia, a contented state of being happy and healthy and prosperous.