This probably isn’t the first time that the Grateful Dead have been indirectly linked in print to Dinosaur Jr., but shortly after the release of Bug, Robert Hunter, former non-performing lyricist of such Dead classics as “Truckin'” and “Touch of Grey”, effectively stamped that “Jr.” on “Dinosaur”. Seems Hunter — along with former members of Country Joe and the Fish, Big Brother and the Holding Company, and Jefferson Airplane — already had a band called Dinosaurs, and they wanted this trio from Western Massachusetts to change their moniker to avoid any confusion. Maybe they had heard “Freak Scene”?
It’s a knowing point, because even back in 1985, with a somewhat muddled self-titled debut on Homestead Records, J. Mascis, Lou Barlow and some guy named Murph were making a sonic blueprint. The next few years would see the band sign to Black Flag’s fledgling independent label, SST Records, and release two albums that paved the way for the forgettable alternative rock revolution known as grunge. They would implode in 1989.
Bug, originally released in 1988, and now available remastered and extended via Merge Records, remains a nine-track distillation of everything Dinosaur up to that point, and a precursor of the Dinosaur that would resurrect itself in the early ’90s. Like 1987’s You’re Living All Over Me, Mascis’ reliably laconic vocal style is offset by his remarkable gift for emotive guitar playing — not to mention the feral power of Lou’s bass and Murph’s drums as a rhythm section — but the record is buoyed by better production and tighter, more refined song craft. It’s essentially all the best parts from YLAOM comb-filtered and then recoiled for greater impact.
If “Freak Scene” is to be forever crowned the worthiest of college-rock anthems, then “No Bones” will remain a fantastic album track, meshing converging guitars with an underbelly of acoustic-rock strum, and towards the end, a firestorm of distortion with Mascis’ delicate, weary lead vocal laid over top. (Mascis might not say much, but his guitar speaks volumes.) “They Always Come” is almost as good, cut in half by a rousing guitar break, and the insistent “Yeah We Know” (“What’s to say / Just no clue we just know what to do / Hope it comes together”) is a five-minute case of discontent, and like the rest of Bug, welds the tension of American hardcore and punk with a powerful melodic expression and only the better parts of classic rock. Or “Neil Young in a blender”, as a stoner friend once said.
“Let It Ride” sounds too much like a leftover from YLAOM, but Bug picks up again with triumvirate of “Pond Song”, “Budge”, and “The Post”. Listening now, you can hear “Pond Song” recast on future Dinosaur albums as the wistful ballad that just won’t play itself straight. “Budge” is just plain brilliant, with Murph punishing his sticks (the version on the BBC sessions compilation, In Session, is even more chaotic), and “The Post” is a slow, sludgy little beast with a nifty chorus. (Both “The Post” and bonus track “Keep the Glove” employ the same guitar soloing that Mascis would eventually splatter all over his best work, 1991’s Green Mind.)
Since the majority of those purchasing these reissues will be longtime Dinosaur fans eager to hear these recordings in newly remastered sound, it might be interesting to note that Mascis mastered all three albums directly from vinyl, and not from the analog masters. Whatever the source, the remastered version of Bug sounds excellent. It far surpasses the SST version, and is noticeably superior when compared to the two Bug tracks included on the Warners/Rhino best of from four years ago. The volume has been given the requisite boost, there is better track separation, and there is a warmth of sound that wasn’t present before, at least not on CD.
But where are all the bonus tracks? Another selling point to the reissue consumer, Merge has decided to forgo the “bells and whistles” and instead has tacked on one bonus track to each record along with some videos. The point seems to be to get these back on the shelves. That may be the case, but they could have made for a far more interesting buy. I like the videos, however: “Freak Scene” and an unreleased “No Bones” will evoke a little “120 Minutes” nostalgia if your age allows. Whatever your opinion on the extras, Bug remains essential American underground rock, and it sounds better than ever.