The ’80s golden era of the underground indie rock label was a sea of financial misdemeanors and pettiness. Poor accounting meant bands’ royalties were spent up by labels that then claimed poverty; artists had to badger erstwhile friends or often went unpaid; most slogged endlessly round the hand-to-mouth touring circuit to little reward. What were punk rock virtues worth when musicians still got the short end of the stick?
It was galling for artists to pour their all into records that audiences couldn’t find or barely knew were out. These frustrations synched with an ever-greater willingness among major label A&Rs to ride atop the latest wave of underground bands. The exodus began in the mid-’80s with Hüsker Dü and the Replacements; then a 1988-1989 rush with Swans, Soul Asylum, Mother Love Bone, the Posies, Soundgarden, and Alice In Chains all heading to majors or their subsidiaries. It’s often forgotten that even the Pixies had a distribution deal with Elektra by 1988 and that Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation was released on Enigma Records, a label part-owned by EMI and distributed by Capitol.
Along came the ’90s, a mopping up period for major labels. Sonic Youth and Nirvana headed to DGC, Firehose went to Columbia, Meat Puppets signed to London Records, while Dinosaur Jr signed to Sire/Blanco y Negro, a subsidiary of Warner Music. Near every US major label had its pet alternative project.
The result was an awful lot of alternative rock product priming the pump in 1991 coming from major label ears that had never heard anything further out than Guns ‘n’ Roses or Metallica becoming attuned to something rawer. Screaming Trees, Firehose, Meat Puppets, Pearl Jam, R.E.M. — all released records in 1991. It was only a matter of time, quality, and mainstream production values, before someone made it big.
Dinosaur Jr.’s major label debut, Green Mind, was delivered to the world relatively early in this cycle and, while the figureheads of the alternative generation — Nirvana — would cop the power trio vibe of 1987-’88, Dinosaur Jr.’s, Green Mind wasn’t the album to set the music world ablaze. In the ’90s, depending on how you want to read it, Dinosaur Jr.’s story is a fascinating tale of how not to take advantage of one’s shot at the big time. Their experience tells other musicians how to stay true to one’s virtues and not let fame devour them. They suffered the naïvety and innocence that most musicians that enter the professional music industry experience. Indeed, their story is one of making truly amazing music while never quite making it ‘pop’.
‘The Wagon’, A-side of a 1990 Sub Pop single, had maintained the momentum created by ‘Freak Scene’, the first true anthem of the indie rock era. The remixed iteration that opens Green Mind sounds even sharper, a full-throttle statement of intent. There’s no intro, no breathing space. The song hurtles out of the speakers and barely two seconds in J Mascis is beseeching, “there’s a way I feel right now / wish you’d help me / don’t know how…” When it feels like things couldn’t get any more intense, a thunderous pound of bass-drums drives the breath out of your chest and the song dashes headlong into a screaming overdriven race for the finish line.
One of Mascis’ finest compositions and testament to the power of a short-lived five-headed lineup, the only criticism that can be made of ‘The Wagon’ is that it was simultaneously too good to be just a limited one-off single, but it feels bolted on in the context of the album. In a sense, Mascis topped himself by making one of the best songs he ever did as an opener. The clutch of exceptional indie rock songs to follow pale by comparison. Green Mind is great underground rock record and precisely the kind of record a band concerned about a backlash from existing fans and accusations of selling out would deliver to set minds at rest.
It’s astounding to listen to Green Mind and realize the core of nine songs were performed, almost in their entirety, by Mascis alone. At just 25, this was someone with so much compositional talent he was able to conjure a full band with just his own two hands and leave nary a stitch showing. Green Mind‘s primary axis is a see-saw back-and-forth between pugnacious hard (punk) rock — tracks like ‘How’d You Pin That One On Me’ — and acoustic guitar-laced Americana — songs like ‘Flying Cloud’ or ‘Water’. It’s a warm and winning combination with every song deserving its place whether it’s the almost funky verses of ‘Puke + Cry’ or the chugging tone of ‘Blowing It’.
While many bands found it hard to do more than smash out straight-ahead rock, Mascis saw imaginative possibilities that create some of the album’s most beautiful moments: the mellotron forming the central spoke around which ‘Thumb’ and its exultant outro solo revolves, or the deftly handled duet on ‘Muck’ where Mascis’ craggy voice occupies the middle of the sound while his softest crooning floods left and right. This was experimentation in service of songcraft, and showed how much he matured since the ragged three album run — Dinosaur (1985), You’re Living All Over Me (1987), Bug (1988) — of the ’80s. While his doe eyes and sleepy vibe would rapidly — and unfairly — earn him the mantle of quintessential slacker, there’s not a hint of slacing on an album that manages to dance between sounds without ever being skittish, and switch and change while maintaining coherence.
This long overdue reissue comes 24-tracks deep in bonus material, all of it worthwhile for both the newcomer and the hardened fanatic. Gathering together the Whatever’s Cool With Me EP, along with everything from the 1991 single of ‘The Wagon’, everything here is of such quality it’s like receiving a second album rather than just random leftovers. The live disc, too, is a decent blend of crowd-pleasers and Green Mind tracks with a rip-roaring bass-heavy edge. It’s a very satisfying overall package from Cherry Red Records.