Essential listening

Nov 23, 2005 at 12:00 am
The buzz over Dinosaur Jr.’s return has been faint. Perhaps it’s overshadowed by the reunion of those other ’80s icons, the Pixies. Listening to the cleaned-up and reissued first three albums, this lack of enthusiasm is disheartening. Dinosaur Jr. was largely responsible for getting the 1980s underground to crank their amps to 11, and in the process became one of the era’s great guitar bands. On the way they paved the road for other alternative rockers, as evidenced in the documentary 1991: The Year Punk Broke. Despite being an uneven affair, their 1985 self-titled debut (to avoid a lawsuit with the hippie group Dinosaur, the band later added "Jr." to its moniker) contains more than a couple essential Dino numbers. The remainder finds the young trio honing their sound; J Mascis’s skill as a guitarist is already apparent.

And whatever qualms one might have with Dinosaur, anyone who actually likes simple, guitar-heavy rock ’n’ roll can’t ignore 1987’s You’re Living All Over Me. Taking a Sonic Youth-like sprawl and shaping it into a more palatable (and listenable) form, the album is quintessential Dinosaur Jr.

It’s apparent the band has matured right off the bat on "Little Furry Things." Lou Barlow’s powerful fuzzed-out bass and Murph’s explosive drumming provides an excellent backing to Mascis’s feedback-laden, phase-shifting guitar theatrics and introspective whine. This isn’t merely the band at its finest — it’s indie rock at its best, period. While it’s a shame that the Peter Frampton cover ("Show Me the Way") has been left off, a spiked-up version the Cure’s "Just Like Heaven" takes it’s place.

The cleaner, more accessible Bug in 1988 signaled the end of the original lineup (Lou Barlow split), but the sound was expanded. While stepping up the production and sacrificing some of the sonic boom of its predecessor, it’s also a showcase of Mascis’s songwriting strengths, particularly on the folk-rock "The Post" and the killer opener, "Freak Scene." The latter is an unabashed pop single masked in distorted and tense waves of guitar that somehow supports (and contradicts) Mascis’s vulnerability: "Sometimes I don’t thrill you/Sometimes I think I’ll kill you/Just don’t let me fuck up will you?/’Cause when I need a friend it’s still you."

"Freak Scene" makes most contemporary emo bands seem irrelevant and downright silly; a fresh listen is a reminder of just how huge Dino’s influence was on post-’80s rock ’n’ roll. In short, Dinosaur Jr. is solidly placed in the pantheon of truly classic rock. This trio of reissues is essential.

Luke Hackney writes about music for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].