Dinosaur Jr.’s Reissued ‘Where You Been’ Is a Rough-Cut Diamond

One of alternative rock's key statements arrived in 1993 with Where Have you Been. It receives the definitive treatment from Cherry Red Records in the second of a four album reissue series encompassing all of Dinosaur Jr.'s major label releases.

Where You Been
Dinosaur Jr.
Cherry Red
27 September 2019 (reissue)

“They fucking beat you to it! You could have done it, you asshole! We could have fucking done it!”, yelled Lou Barlow during a passing encounter with J Mascis in the aftermath of Nirvana’s success. For a moment in the late ’80s, “Freak Scene” sounded like the anthem behind which a new generation of indie and punk kids could rally. Sonic Youth were able to sing “Teenage Riot”, having had a vision of J Mascis as dream President of a nation reborn. The shoegaze scene in the UK was fertilized by Dinosaur Jr.’s 1987 tour. Meanwhile, Sub Pop bands in the Pacific Northwest copped a part of their punk/rock fusion from the moves made by this East Coast power trio.

Unfortunately, what should have been the band’s peak years were a bit of a mess. The initial lineup splintered in 1989. A temporary five-gun lineup came and went in the space of a single year. Their major label debut in 1991 was essentially the work of one man. A few tours kept things ticking, until finally an album emerged by a full band…But only in February 1993, some four-and-a-half years on from Bug, which had been released in October 1988. It was a different time in a different world. Those early hopes and deep impacts still clung to Dinosaur Jr., an albatross around the neck that gave them the air of alternative rock also-rans, when they’d barely entered the mainstream race in the first place.

It’s a shame, because taken on its own terms, Where You Been is a rough-cut diamond thoroughly deserving its place in the Billboard Top 50 (at #50) and the quarter of a million sales that represented. Less sheepish than Green Mind, and benefiting from the first (momentarily) solid lineup since 1988, Where You Been sounds like a band embracing the potential of mainstream resources, matching it with renewed vigor and confidence, all in the service of an ambitious creative vision.

‘Out There’ has a barnstorming intro that lunges for the throat. But the glowering verses bring the mood down to the level of a cagey midnight walk through the alternating glare of streetlights and pools of shade. Musically, everything switches on a dime with ‘Start Choppin’, a catchy confection of bubblegum pop, all sky-scraping solos and upbeat strummed riffs. Vocally too, this is a Mascis masterclass: across five-minutes he runs the gamut from murmured lines to the earworm high note on the singable refrain of “I ain’t telling you a secret / I ain’t tell you goodbye“, then the bridge where he’s all raspy twists and turns.

Mascis’ voice may be an acquired taste (I adore it) but again and again he knows just when to rise up, where to crack, where to edge it, when to let it drop. Even just on the repetitions of “goodbye” he toys with the phrasing to great effect. “What Else Is New” manages to be romantic, lovelorn, hopeless and gorgeous all at once, with Mascis’ guitar reaching up-Up-UP! Then a well-timed drop to a pure acoustic refrain that bleeds out over percussion, strings, and a Mascics’ keening ululation.

There’s a lot to be said for John Agnello’s work as an engineer on this album and it’s understandable why the relationship with Mascis has continued to this day. Finally, this music was granted the kind of power it deserved! The bass and drums have girth and heft without trampling all else underfoot. Delicate strums and plucks stand out sharply from the mix. And yes, Mascis’ guitar solos are like a flamethrower of amps igniting the air and pulling breath from lungs. This was the best of Dinosaur Jr.

The reissue seems to have benefited from a little spit and polish. “Not the Same” provies breathing space after the pure sugar rush of the album’s first half, but there’s a wealth of detail that make it more than ‘the slow number’. The piano and violin have a deepened clarity and presence, a note held to underscore certain passages, descending figures winding round and round later verses.

“Get Me”, a mid-album highlight, deserved to be the album’s first single, matching “What Else Is New” for its whirl of emotion and imagined moments that stay in the mind (“trembling words don’t make my eyes close…Every dream is shot by daylight…”). This leads to the howling question/accusation/resignation “You’re not gonna get me through this are you”. The answer that comes through guitar strings. It’s under-appreciated how well chosen Dinosaur Jr. singles were, unequivocal star turns from start to finish. In an ideal world, maybe “Goin Home” and “I Ain’t Sayin” would switch places, given the former’s sense of finalé, but I’m equally enamored with the latter’s surge of vitality and the ouroboros-like guitar figure that transfigures the song.

While there are no true weaknesses, the studio bonus tracks on disc one hang together less coherently than those on Green Mind. This includes a cover of the Flying Burrito Brothers “Hot Burrito #2”, and an acoustic version of a song from the band’s 1985 debut. The surprisingly successful Judgment Night soundtrack rock/hip-hop mashup “Missing Link” is graced by Del the Funky Homosapien. Stand out ‘Keeblin’ merges the gentlest of acoustic guitars with a roaring guitar solo –y ou can almost hear amp elements frying. Mascis contributes one of his most love-worn and ear-catching vocals here — no bass, no drums. It makes a spacious sound in which a piano provides a final satisfying intervention.

The second disc leads off with some quality BBC session outtakes including a rarity — Mike Johnson singing his song “Noon at Dawn”. This is followed by a swift ,eight track long live set from mid-1993 that includes “Raisins”, previously only officially available as a BBC session iteration, as well as a neat eight-minute long version of Green Mind‘s “Thumb”.

RATING 9 / 10