Cleaned up a little but raging, alienated and freakin' loud as ever, J makes his uneasy peace with mass distribution.
Dinosaur Jr.'s first three albums, reissued last year by Merge, showed a band rooted in hardcore but not averse to arena-ready rock. Here, after founding member Lou Barlow left the band (actually, he was mostly gone by Bug), J. Mascis continues on this path alone, gradually shedding the punk urgency of his earlier work to hone a slower, more anthemic, mainstream rock sound.
You could make the case that major label pressure, the burgeoning grunge scene or any number of factors influenced the shift in Mascis' sound, but really, he seems to have been headed that way anyway. Listen to Bug again if you have any doubt. Big melodies, soaring guitar solos, doom-y dirges and unexpected vulnerability... all the hallmarks of alternative nation rock were taking shape well before Mascis signed with Sire, before he toured with Nirvana, before he became the godfather for the Seattle's scene.
Green Mind, originally out in February 1991, is the rougher, more immediate of the two, less pristinely produced yet also less prone to the excesses (timpani, string sections) of Where You Been?. It begins with the headlong rush of "The Wagon", all hardcore drumming and super-rhythmic guitar until it breaks for an arena rock falsetto chorus. Mascis' cracked and croaking voice is mostly buried here, his guitar solos brief and soaring. It's the one track where he is backed by a freestanding band -- Don Fleming of Gumball and drummer Murph -- and it has the contagious energy of a walloping live show. Later cuts have an almost jammy euphoria. "Puke + Cry", despite its downbeat title, bounces along on sunny guitar strumming that wouldn't sound out of place at Bonnaroo. And the acoustic "Playing Cloud" is a shimmery bit of Led Zep III folk-bluesiness, the eccentric tones of Mascis' voice only reinforcing the cut's essential melancholy. (His voice, it must be said, takes some getting used to, carrying emotion much more effectively than it does actual tunes.) Of the extra cuts -- "Hot Burrito #2" (a Gram Parsons cover) is the best, capturing the glorious squall and groan of classic Dinosaur Jr. , though the two singles "Turnip Farm" and "Forget It" hold up quite well, too.
Where You Been?, following two years later, is more melodic and heavier, rumbling to life with the distorted dirge of "Out There" and running in unabated proto-grunge glory through "Start Choppin'", "What Else Is New" and "On the Way". Mascis has a steady band for this one, Mike Johnson (later of Caustic Resin) on bass and his old mate Murph pounding out his monstrous rhythms. That foundation seems to liberate him -- his voice sounds more grounded and less damaged, and there are far more of the spiraling, free-wheeling guitar solos on this album than on the previous one. The guitar intros to both "What Else Is New" and "I Ain't Saying" literally soar over the music with grand, arena-sized over-the-topness that owe more to Led Zeppelin than Black Flag. Armed with a major label budget, Mascis goes overboard a couple of times, punctuating his fractured folk ballad "Not the Same" with timpani and hiring an entire string quartet to sweeten "What Else is New?". Still for the most part this is fairly elemental stuff, whether pushed nearly into punk frenzy as on "Hide" or slowed down majestically on "I Ain't Saying". As with Green Mind, the disc is packaged with extensive commentary from Byron Coley and three bonus tracks, a Peel recording of "Hide", gorgeous, meandering acoustic cut called "Keeblin'" and a live version of "What Else Is New?" This final cut, 10 minutes long, opens up the song, giving you a sense for how hard and loud it must have rocked live. The verse-chorus part of this cut peters out at about three minutes, laying the ground for seven more minutes of blistering guitar pyrotechnics, culminating in a flanger-enhanced rollercoaster ride near the end.
The contrast between this live version and the much tamer studio cut is the first inkling that maybe Mascis was holding his fire a bit, and that the Sire brass may have squeezed out some of his anarchic glory. Still, even if they are diluted a bit for mass consumption, these are two seriously rocking albums laid down by an idiosyncratic genius at the very top of his game. The surprise is not that they're less punk than the SST albums or that they veer occasionally into baroquely orchestrated excess. The surprise -- and the triumph -- is that they were allowed to happen at all. There's nothing this raw and ear-shredding coming out of the majors today, that's for sure.