By Christopher Alexander | 1 July 2009
J Mascis states in Michael Azerrad’s excellent Our Band Could Be Your Life that his idea for Dinosaur Jr. was always “ear-bleeding country”—delicate, even fragile melodies underneath a maelstrom of feedback, distortion and wah-wah pedal. He even named the band’s best-of collection after the phrase; it was all you needed to know about the band. But Dinosaur Jr.‘s best records, like 1987’s truly seminal You’re Living All Over Me and follow-up Bug (1989), never embodied that phrase too literally. Sure, “Tarpit” pastes a distorted, bruising bass line over the most rudimentary key-of-G chord change imaginable, but the song is somewhat of an anomaly. More representative was the single “Little Fury Things,” which boasted a modular, evolving sequence of chords that would make Brian Wilson proud, but it sounded like it was being strangled by Lee Renaldo’s cappuccino machine. Starting with major label debut Green Mind (1991; the first without bass player Lou Barlow), Mascis began to scale his writing back, pruning first the velocity and drive of hardcore, then the left-turns and unexpected bridges that can be found on “The Lung” and “Sludgefeast,” until finally, by the time of Without a Sound (1994) and founding drummer Murph’s departure, Dinosaur Jr. most closely resembled a classic rock album with an occasional jaunty swing. In short, ear-bleeding country.
If it sounds formulaic, it should be mentioned that only Frank Black looms larger as a central element in Nirvana’s blockbusting DNA, and the aforementioned “Tarpit” is literally the blueprint for every song My Bloody Valentine would make from the You Made Me Realise EP (1988) through their legendary Loveless (1991). And it’s not like the man’s writing ever really tapered off, capable as he was of crafting a song as beautiful as “Seemed Like the Thing to Do.” Still, it’s not terribly surprising that when the classic lineup reunited for a comeback album, 2007’s Beyond, Mascis would pick up where he left the moniker, not so much where he left Barlow. What is surprising is the brace of great, high caliber songs he wrote for the album, to say nothing of the fact that Barlow’s “Back to Your Heart” could stand toe to toe with any of them. The band sounded great; if anything, they seemed younger than their messy-at-times heyday, or at least more enthusiastic. The result was something like a hit record. Twenty years after inventing a sound, Dinosaur Jr. Mk I Redux had found an unlikely second wind.
They’ve yet to lose it: Farm comes in a bit longer and countrified than its predecessor, but it’s also a more muscular and emotional album. Mascis’ guitar playing in particular is positively possessed, on another level from even his own estimable reputation. Several songs travel well north of the six minute mark to accommodate his leadwork: “Said the People” and “Plans” are both beautiful changes over which to solo, the former an unvarnished power ballad, the latter sounding like a grunge-era epic that wasn’t. But it’s the penultimate track “I Don’t Wanna Go There” that’s the horse of a different color. Structurally it’s one of the album’s simplest songs, but right away it’s apparent that it’s a grizzly thing with teeth; Murph wouldn’t be bashing his kit like that if it were otherwise. The song spends its first four minutes as nothing more than vintage Dinosaur—a wall of guitars build a simple chord change, some classic-rock fills here and there, a particularly good vocal melody that gets buried by the six or so Marshall cabinets, all capped off by a solo. But then the rhythm section stops the song dead in its tracks for a breakdown that is their most shocking dynamic change since “Sludgefeast,” and then it’s four minutes of unrestrained, pick digging, out-of-mind soloing that must be heard to be believed. And the band’s right there with him, Barlow using his bicep as much as his hand to strum his bass while Murph flails with abandon.
With a performance like this, who are we to ask the band for some adventure in their arrangements? Shouldn’t creating and maintaining the gold standard by which all other shoegaze and indie rock bands are measured be enough? It sure feels churlish to point out that album opener “Pieces,” for all its righteous production and air-guitar-cum-metal-horn inducing glory, sounds like a direct descendant of nineties single “Out There,” or that by the time “Friends” gallops along you get the feeling you’ve heard this song already. This is the reason why Lou Barlow’s songs are so important to Dinosaur’s resurgence: in short, they keep things interesting. They add elements of Beatlesque pop and psychedelia—scope the harmonies on “Your Weather,” or the almost Indian flavoring on “Imagination Blind.” Never mind that the changes are more rudimentary, or anyway less sophisticated than Mascis’ writing. They add a welcome and less predictable contrast, and the band sounds weightless because of it.
One should never fault dependable excellence for that dependability. Consider the Rolling Stones, who essentially made the same album about seven times starting with 1968’s Beggar’s Banquet. They didn’t stop being good for the rewrite, they stopped when they failed to discern the difference between good and bad Rolling Stones songs. Quality is still job one for J Mascis, and if we have to settle for the merely excellent instead of another landmark album like You’re Living All Over Me, all for the moneymaking glory of the Dinosaur Jr. Mach I Redux live experience (and doubtless this album will sound great on stage), that’s fine by me.