Dinosaur Jr., was probably never going to win a Grammy. Sure, the phenomena that J. Mascis and company (including future Sebadoh/Folk Implosion czar Lou Barlow) helped instigate speaks volumes. But the band’s trademark sound of distorted, sonic guitar noise and Mascis’ raw, scratchy vocals was never the stuff of Shania Twain. Obviously, that wasn’t the intention, which is why Jr’s balls-to-the-wall approach in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s helped define a genre which has since largely lost its way. Fanatic supporters like Nirvana and Sonic Youth are enough to solidify Jr’s vast influence, but is the substance really there? Did they really put out solid alternative music worthy of replication, or did they merely have the guts to lay a rough foundation for what alternative music could be in the face of lame pop and hair metal?
It’s an unanswerable question (unless you’re an avid fan or a staunch detractor), one which becomes even more foggy when you consider that their four BBC sessions from 1988-89 and 1992 have been released by Mascis on The BBC Sessions. Good to see them back, of course, since the band’s disbanding by Mascis in 1997, but viewing this BBC release in comparison to other recent ones by the likes of the Beatles, Led Zeppelin and the Pixies somewhat besmirches it.
Which doesn’t even begin to speak of the material within. I’ll admit that I didn’t jump on the Dinosaur bandwagon until the release of Green Mind, and furthermore didn’t become a bona fide fan until Where You Been, albums that many hardcore fans find somewhat deplorable. Still, the earlier material doesn’t have the same accessibility to me as the later. What these two albums reveal is a definite sense of melody and completeness, an urgency to show that something greater can be accomplished than screaming, feedback, and noise. Taking nothing away from earlier efforts, like Dinosaur, You’re Living All Over Me, and Bug, but the very fact that The BBC Sessions highlights mostly these years, means it skims over some very productive ones, including (gasp!) their only radio hit, “Feel the Pain.”
Yet, when they get it right, there’s definitely something there. “Keep the Glove” is as bubbly as it gets, and a sparse and whiny “Get Me” is a stunning closer, at least chronologically foretelling a new foray into more earnest, compelling melody. And the Neil Young feel of “Keeblin” shows a stripped down melancholy which, though usually a subversive undercurrent, is painfully and wonderfully bare. But it’s the complete difficulty in getting through mindless, wayward uber-slop rockers like “Does It Float” and “Bulbs of Passion” which make you scratch your head.
Still, no matter. Expecting a symphony from Mascis and crew is like eagerly awaiting the next Celine Dion/Limp Bizkit duet of “You Can Call Me Al.” At it’s best, The BBC Sessions is a stunning reminder of the wake-up call to an era of music that desperately needed one. Maybe Dinosaur Jr. isn’t what we had in mind, but there’s no arguing that what came after sufficed well enough, and it may never happened otherwise.