When Merge announced that it would be releasing remastered versions of the first three albums by Dinosaur Jr., there was a good bit of enthusiasm from the indie-rock community for at least two of those albums, anyway. Everyone seemed to agree that getting properly updated versions of 1987’s You’re Living All Over Me and 1988’s Bug would be the greatest thing to happen this side of a full-on reunion. This was quite understandable, since both of those albums are considered indie classics. The band’s debut, on the other hand, is regarded as more of an interesting curiosity. While YLAOM and Bug contained college radio staples such as “Raisans”, “In a Jar” and “Freakscene,” it’s hard to really pinpoint a track from the debut that can be considered a classic. The latter two albums found the trio - guitarist J Mascis, bassist Lou Barlow and drummer Murph - hitting its creative stride, finding the right combination of post-hardcore fury, guitar histrionics and memorable melodies. The debut however, sounds like a band that’s more interested in throwing everything at the wall than figuring out what sticks.
So does that mean Dinosaur should be cast aside and ignored, since it’s clearly a lesser work than what followed? I’d argue certainly not. While there is no denying the imperfection that permeates this album, it’s precisely those imperfections that give it its charm. This is a debut record by a band that was coming out of the hardcore scene; (Mascis proudly sports his Mom-knitted Deep Wound sweater in some of the booklets hilarious pictures). How many hardcore bands over the past 25 years or so have successfully managed to separate themselves from that original sound with good results? It’s not a long list. There’s something to be said for listening to a band creating its identity, and that’s what makes Dinosaur enjoyable. As the album jumps from heavy riffing of “Bulbs of Passion”, to murky grime of “Pointless” to the wistful country-rock of “Severed Lips”, you can see the pieces being put into place and the puzzle coming together; it can be as exciting as hearing the final product.
Most of today’s buzz bands (The Strokes, Franz Ferdinand, Interpol, etc.) have come directly out of the gate with a sparkling debut album. It’s hard to fault them for this, but at the same time it’s more difficult to feel a direct connection to the bands that show everything they’ve got from the get-go. You can’t watch them grow, you can only watch them try to live up to the (supposedly) lofty heights of their debuts. Meanwhile, some other recent alt-rock success stories (Flaming Lips and Modest Mouse, to name two) are reaping the benefits of the slow-burn path to stardom. Those uneven early albums clearly served a purpose in those bands’ evolutions, and for people who had been listening all along, the reward is that much greater.
It’s easier to praise Dinosaur in retrospect since we are quite aware of what it spawned, and it does have its merits. “Forget the Swan” keeps the noise freakouts to a relative minimum and with Barlow taking lead vocal duties, serves as a pretty good example of a proto-Sebadoh tune with some fancy fretwork by Mascis. That is, until the rollicking bridge appears out of nowhere, with Mascis and his nasal whine taking over vocal duties. From there it’s a sudden shift back to the strummy chorus and then about a minute’s worth of guitar soloing until the close. Over time the dynamic shifts in the songs would become more seamless, but this track did more than just hint at future possibilities.
“Severed Lips” may be the song least representative of the overall sound on the record, but that doesn’t stop it from being the highlight. It’s certainly the most melodic song and is the only one that doesn’t try to pummel the listener with pure noise at some point. Just as “About a Girl” sounded out of place on Nirvana’s Bleach (but showed that the band was actually capable of, you know, writing songs) “Severed Lips” does the same here. Since he’s not competing with his own guitar squall, Mascis’ vocals are more at the forefront than usual and while he’ll certainly never be awarded any vocal scholarships to Berklee, he certainly knows how to deliver a line and make it feel honest.
Almost all of the songs on Dinosaur have their moments. Then again, almost all of them have their non-moments. “Repulsion” coasts along as one of the more tuneful rockers before Mascis feels compelled to throw in an out-of-nowhere metal riff at the end of the chorus. “Gargoyle” shows the band taking on more of a British post-punk sound before suddenly deciding to use every vocal and guitar effect halfway through, all but killing the momentum. It’s an album that goes from good to painful to great, and often within the same song. That makes it a difficult listen (even in its glossier version) and ensures that it will never get the accolades that its two follow-ups received. But if not for the steps - and missteps - taken here, those records wouldn’t even exist in the first place.