Dinosaur Jr.'s 'Without a Sound Deserves' - and Gets - a Fresh Listen with Cherry Red's Reissue
Dinosaur Jr.'s last chance to bite at the apple of fame came in late 1994 with their album, Without a Sound. This expanded edition from Cherry Red Records makes the case for hearing it free of the baggage of that alt rock era.
Without a Sound
27 September 2019 (reissue)Other
Rock music in 1994 is forever overshadowed by the death of Kurt Cobain and the resultant souring of the alternative rock mainstream moment. Yet this was still the year when bands with genuine crossover potential made their mark. Superunknown launched Soundgarden into the commercial stratosphere. On Hole released female-fronted punk rock's greatest statement with Live Through This. Commercial juggernauts like Pearl Jam and R.E.M. sailed serenely on to multi-platinum sales despite delivering their most difficult albums so far.
Unfortunately for other bands associated with "the year that punk broke", the path was less spectacular. Bands like Melvins continued to make zero impact on pop charts because they made zero attempt to play pop. Some artists compromised just enough to see a spike in attention — Sonic Youth's Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star gave them their highest chart position of the '90s. But they experienced a rapid decline in sales because their music was still "too challenging" for mainstream tastes. The future of rock in the US lay with punk revivalists on the West Coast, such as Offspring or Green Day, and hard rock bands such as Bush, Creed, and Foo Fighters.
Against this backdrop, Dinosaur Jr. attempted to follow the forward motion of Where You Been, with the August launch of Without A Sound. The initial auspices were encouraging. First single "Feel the Pain" hit number 4 on the Billboard Modern Rock Tracks chart, just behind the previous high, "Start Choppin". The album rose to 44 on the Billboard Top 200, their greatest success, but no further. Commercially speaking, Dinosaur Jr. reached their peak with this album but a second single in early 1995, "I Don't Think So", didn't make a dent.
In retrospect, this shouldn't have been surprising: compared to their peers in the underground of 1988, Dinosaur Jr. sounded like trailblazers for the unashamed embrace of the best of '70s rock. By 1994 there were a lot more artists who compromised their sound to a far greater extend than Dinosaur Jr. did, in order to appeal to the tastes of the general public. Those bands would reap the rewards. Even here, on Dinosaur Jr.'s most glossy album, the band's sound remains at only the slimmest remove from their pre-major label days.
Encountering the reissue in 2019, it's easier to appreciate it without the weight of that moment in history. Without a Sound could never have been the album to anoint Dinosaur Jr. as the next Nirvana, or the one that had suburban parents or the school in-crowd singing along. On the other hand, and despite grumbles from longtime fans and from J Mascis himself, the album is a superior piece of work and stands comfortably in the company of the band's '90s releases.
"Feel the Pain" pulls the classic Mascis trick of effervescent guitar work that lures the listener in with promise of fun, only to be greeted with lyrics overwhelmed by regret and uncertainty. Here, despite the light disguise provided by the "bigness" of the album's production, Mascis sounds almost ghostly, his voice trailing off on the word, nothing. He has spoken in interview of the impact of his father's death during the making of the album and it's true that Without a Sound's core themes are hardly the stuff of anthemic sing-alongs, given its pain, loss, sarcastic rejoiners, and resigned shrugs.
What's overlooked, however, is the beauty of its words and their delivery throughout. The opening line of ballad "Outta Hand" moves sure-footed through "Hey girl come on walk a while with me now", with the insertion of "a while" turning it from a blunt sentence to a more sibilant mini-tongue-twister. Mascis has a gift for lines that feel honest out loud, look like private confession on a slipped note on paper, and can be sung with soul and fire.
Instrumentally, the album stays pretty firmly in verse-chorus-verse mode. There are fewer left field touches than normal — a piano dots the finalé of "Outta Hand", and Thalia Zedek provides an occasional female counterpart to Mascis. It's also noticeable that there are relatively few points where Mascis' guitar threatens to singe the listener's hair in its customary manner, as hear in the stuttering solo that kicks off on "Even You" or the ripping intro to "Grab It" stand out. It's perhaps the keenest testimony to how Mascis was feeling, that he could find words but he couldn't summon up the unrestrained passion he tended to pass through the strings and transmute into quaking air.
That reticence is matched by an unwillingness to stretch his voice in the way he does when fully engaged. For most of the album he chooses a tone at the start of a song and rarely leaves it, some lines remain a mumble, though they never quite disappear into the band's wall of sound. But still, this is a good album. "Seemed Like the Thing to Do" is one of the prettiest tunes Mascis ever penned. Every breath feels meaningful and in perfect control, like a gently cycling zen mantra of hope and desire.
The bonus tracks are a good fit for the curious yin-yang of Without a Sound. On the other Cherry Red reissues, Green Mind, Where You Been, and Hand It Over, we're usually presented with full songs that stand apart from the album with which they're packaged. Here, there's the chance to luxuriate in a full flowing Mascis on the "No Words Just Solo" iteration of "Get Out of This". We can also savor four instrumental versions of album songs, as well as one decent original soundtrack rarity, and an alternative mix of "Seemed Like the Thing to Do", which manages to turn a beautiful and relatively simple song into a still-beautiful apparent tribute to Steve Reich.
The live disc is a bit of a gem, given the excited energy of a very audible crowd and the response it seems to draw from Dinosaur Jr.. They smash their way through a killer set including the free-soloing showcase that is the ten-minute iteration of What Else Is New" (previously available on the five song bonus disc accompanying the Australasian tour edition of this album). This rendition so good it remains one of my favorite moments in the band's entire discography. That's no mean feat for a live song.
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