'Hand It Over' Is Dinosaur Jr.'s Magnum Opus -- Too Bad It Was Too Late
The last in Cherry Red Records' four Dinosaur Jr. album reissue series, Hand It Over, makes a clear case for the appraisal of an album that deserved far more than it received.
Hand It Over
27 September 2019 (reissue)Other
The behavior of the record label when presented with Dinosaur Jr.'s Hand It Over was a fucking disgrace. After three albums on a major had failed to set sales ablaze, against the backdrop of alternative rock's death throes as a mainstream force, executives chose to barely promote the album. There would be no major label singles, no video budget -- only a 7" sub-license to a tiny indie. The suits' negative attitude created a self-fulfilling prophesy: sales of a desultory 34,000 in the US, a Billboard chart position at #188 that was 20 places behind Green Mind, and the band's first backward commercial step.
The mood of dismissal and defeat signaled the end of Dinosaur Jr'.s time on a major and would lead directly to the break-up of the band in December 1997. While no one can criticize a business for exercising caution, on this occasion management crossed over into outright sabotage. What's truly depressing is that, if the labels had taken the time to notice, they would have realized that Hand It Over was Dinosaur Jr.'s finest album of the 1990s.
One of the album's key strengths is that J Mascis is in the best voice of his career and has the determination to really go for it. On "I Don't Think", the crunchiest palm-muted chords are married to his plaintive cooing. Suddenly, in the final moments, his voice seems to slip its leash and escape on the uplifting sentiment of "Know enough just not to doubt the flow and let it come to you." Throughout he moves from tear-inducing falsetto to an attractively mature huskiness, using that characteristic edge to his voice for specific effect.
Listen to the bridge in "Never Bought It". It carefully matches his delivery to the emotion and overall sound of each song. The one-word chorus of album centerpiece "Alone" is a genuine feat, wringing a spectrum of feeling from two syllables and calling to mind a lover's lament, the howl of a lost dog, a choir's call to a missing god.
After a number of albums where the guitar was relatively restrained, after a run of major label records where guitar parts were trimmed to fit pop song dimensions, Hand It Over feels like broken chains. Mascis lashes out with solos that slice the air like a bullwhip.
By 1997 the passing wave of '90s artists were often still apologetic about the sonic qualities of the guitar, while the drum machine, synthesizer, and sampler were taking over as the instruments of choice. Here was someone showing that the guitar retained a sharp potency as a conveyor of emotion. It's a mark of his talent that his work here is a million miles from some gross display of technicality. There's genuine feeling throughout.
Again, "Alone" is the album's most singular instrumental achievement. The guitar slithers, growls, screeches, roars — spikes of panicked sound underline a word or a sentiment, thick banks of fuzz roll through the chorus. Everything gives way to a beast of a solo that feels utterly void of reason yet still manages to pass through distinct segments heightening the impact, blow following blow.
The album's pacing is a crucial feature: the first half is loaded with heaviness, either in terms of tone or volume — the dark grumble of "I Don't Think", the thrashed chord opening "Nothin's Going on", the full on soloing on "Can't We Move This Along" — the tension builds to its peak on "Alone". "Sure Not Over You" provides a vital moment of gentle breath in the aftermath of "Alone'" the guitar has the soft resonance of a stone dropped into a pond. The solo is all summer haze, while the keyboard parts give a subtle warmth to this song that's about recognizing one's weakness then pulling it together into something more positive, the desire to keep moving forward.
The pace begins to build again for "Loaded" then "Mick" continues this spurt of enthusiasm and recovery — "I found you, and there you are," over shared male/female vocals. The result is that the back half of the record gives the sense of passing the crest of a dark hill to find a sunlit valley on the other side. A neat use of effects burbles through the guitar solo on "I Know Yer Insane" to send it off into space before "Getting Rough" appears with its bright banjo picking and country dance drum shuffle, a dusty joy shaking off regret. "Gotta Know" ends the record with triumphal guitar soloing lacing the entire song together with flanged rhythm guitar and finally a massive descending burr of feedback fading out over half a minute.
The bonuses include — joy of joys! — the charming pop of "Take a Run at the Sun" and its two associated tracks from a 1997 EP and film soundtrack. There are also stripped down acoustic renditions of "Never Bought It" and '"ure Not Over You", all of these songs serving to bring the final crack of dawn on the album's denouement into brilliant sunshine. Two quite different covers interrupt the mood, Richard Thompson's "I Misunderstood" — a stalking rocker — and the Germs' "What We Do Is Secret" — a snarled burst of sheer aggression.
The live disc meanwhile, though relatively well bootlegged in the past, captures a band raging ferociously against its dying light. There's a sense of defiance and bravado in the final 20-minutes, belonging to just two songs — incendiary takes of both "Alone" and "What Else Is New". This is an appropriate sign off for this beautifully constructed set of reissues.
Mention should also be made of the liner notes that Keith Cameron has contributed to all four compilations: it's rare I sit and patiently read a liner essay let alone four in a row but these are a cut above the norm — detailed, insightful and intriguing. Dinosaur Jr,'s distinctive artwork remains intact with period photography adding to rather than covering or obscuring the band's quirky taste in imagery.
Is there a scenario in which Dinosaur Jr. might have ruled the world alongside Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Soundgarden? No. The sketchy status of the band between 1989 and 1992 robbed it of traction at a crucial moment. The four albums delivered between 1991 and 1997 were uniformly excellent without ever sounding like they'd do a Nevermind and find a place on a shelf alongside Bon Jovi, Guns 'n' Roses, Prince, or Michael Jackson. Green Mind felt like a sheepish clearing of the throat rather than a confident demand for the attention of the masses. Where You Been was a classic but felt like a fresh start as well as remaining too 'out there' for most.
The band's last chance to catch a ride on the zeitgeist came around the time of Without a Sound but was hampered by Mascis' downcast mood and absent energy. Finally, by the time Hand It Over emerged, labels were cutting losses and culling near anyone who hadn't sold a million in the alt rock boom years. But what the hell! Some bands can look back on a career and divide their work into the failures, the solid efforts, the occasional glory. Dinosaur Jr. had a wild ride over a decade-and-a-half and still never made a single album that doesn't belong in the top bracket.
Similarly, across these albums, even if the extras are included rounding the tally up to well over 100 songs, there's not a single one that deserves to be skipped. Dinosaur Jr. are held in fond regard and significant respect and these four reissues show every ounce of it was well-earned and hard-won.
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- Dinosaur Jr. Where You Been (review) - PopMatters ›
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