There have been various Dinosaur Jr. reissues over the years – most notably the Rhino CDs from 2010 – but none that have served the band especially well in the age of deluxe editions and lavish box sets for legacy artists. The Rhino reissues were a step in the right direction with each featuring a smattering of bonus materials (save for ‘You’re Living All Over Me’ which managed to be a potential downgrade from the earlier SST CD), but those still didn’t give the big fans too much in terms of unreleased materials or rarities. Luckily, the 2019 campaign from Cherry Red Records puts that right. The period between 1990 and 1997 presents their most commercially successful, but with that came four great albums, an archive of unheard live material and a lot of other stuff that deserves to be shared.
During the recording of 1988’s ‘Bug’ LP, tensions began to form between founding members J. Mascis (gtr/vox) and Lou Barlow (bass/vox). Their differences were hysterically documented on the album’s final number ‘Don’t’, written by Mascis but featuring Barlow yelling “why don’t you like me?” over and over at full pelt. After touring the album, Barlow left the band.
With its two creative forces heading in different directions, the band’s future seemed uncertain, but a new Dinosaur Jr. single ‘The Wagon’ issued in 1990 allayed any fears that the band were about to hit the buffers completely. By February 1991, Mascis returned with a new full length album.
Although ‘Green Mind’ retains the Dinosaur Jr. name, in many ways, it’s a Mascis solo recording, created with a few friends and guests. Mascis is the only musician to play on all ten songs, but somehow it still manages to sound coherent. It really helps that much of the material has a classic Dinosaur Jr. sound, with the best tracks (‘The Wagon’ and ‘I Live For That Look’) never feeling a million miles away from the 1988 breakthrough single ‘Freak Scene’.
Perhaps due to Mascis being the only one in the driving seat, the album shows more of a willingness to stretch out a little. During ‘Muck’, a fairly typical Mascis vocal sounds completely at odds in a backdrop of stodgy funk riffs. A love it/hate it kind of tune, it seems to work purely through J.’s reverting to a more typical Dinosaur sound for an underplayed chorus. On the acoustic ‘Flying Cloud’, Mascis takes his fans into an odd semi-psychedlic world where multi layered guitars shimmer and Gumball’s Jay Spiegel punctuates all floatiness with a heavy bass drum sound, while on the semi-acoustic jangler ‘Puke & Cry’, there’s a touch more musical scope without losing the feeling that J. still is still capable of creating a divisive racket. Placing J. and friends somewhere between ‘Lick’ era Lemonheads and ‘All Shook Down’ era Replacements, it’s one of the album’s more impressive deep cuts. …And if somehow you ever got to thinking the band had sold out by signing to a major label, you’d be an idiot. The punk-ish ‘How’d You Pin That One On Me’ captures J. in full flow amid a sea of distortion and ‘Blowing It’, in particular, contains enough echo and unfiltered noise to stand alongside anything the band recorded for the SST and Blast First labels.
Despite being a bit of a patchwork affair, ‘Green Mind’ holds up very well indeed. The 2019 reissue compliments an always enjoyable album with some excellent b-sides (all of the studio cuts from the brilliant ‘Whatever’s Cool With Me’ mini album) and an unmissable array of live material. Four previously available live b-sides (including the two live recordings from ‘Whatever’s Cool…’) are joined by a complete live set from Hollywood in 1991. Previously unreleased, it’s actually one of the all time great Dinosaur recordings. Sounding like a good soundboard source, there’s just enough clarity without losing any of the rawness. Part of the rough feel comes from Murph’s drum kit keeping a forthright presence, but during ‘Budge’ and the still new ‘Water’ (especially), J.’s guitar is almost deafening. In terms of sheer noise, though, it’s hard to beat the performance of ‘Freak Scene’ where the bass is so loud it drowns out half of the vocal. As far as set lists go, it’s more than solid: with material ranging from across the band’s career, it’s great to experience older, more abrasive material like ‘Tarpit’ and ‘Kracked’ (another take with a ferocious bass) rubbing shoulders with ‘The Wagon’. As a snapshot of a pre-‘Start Choppin’ Dinosaur Jr., you’d be hard pressed to find a better recording.
WHERE YOU BEEN
A sizable commercial success, even hosting a bona fide UK hit single in the catchy ‘Start Choppin’, a strong case could be made for 1992’s ‘Where You Been’ being Dinosaur Jr.’s best album. It’s most commercial material (‘Start Choppin’, ‘Out There’ and ‘What Else Is New’) is as good as anything the band had recorded up until this point. ‘What Else Is New’, especially, is the kind of track that’s so infectious, it’s the most likely to win over new fans with its array of high pitched woo-hoos and a moody coda full of kettle drums. You didn’t get that with Lou Barlow.
Among other highlights, the energetic ‘On The Way’ provides a direct throwback to ‘Bug’ with its indie jangle and wall of feedback and ‘Get Me’ is a brazen homage to Neil Young & Crazy Horse for the Mudhoney generation – each at either end of the Dinosaur musical scale, but each an important part of this musical puzzle. In terms of moody deep cuts, ‘Drawerings’ is solid, even if it starts off sounding like ‘Get Me’ played somewhat oddly (a feeling reinforced by some bizarre album sequencing), but eventually wins through with a heavy mid section and a classic, classic Mascis solo to finish. Likewise, ‘I Ain’t Sayin” brings plenty of distorted charm, a classic jangle-pop riff and a howling lead. Tucked away at the end of the album, it often gets overlooked in favour of some of the more obvious tunes, but it’s every bit as good as anything you’ll find on ‘Green Mind’. The only time ‘Where You Been’ falls is during ‘Not The Same’. That track has some great lead guitar melodies and a weird anti-folk vibe (along with more kettle drums), creating a fantastic tune. Only Mascis really knows why he chose to sabotage it with a weak falsetto vocal that seems like it drags on forever, but…hey ho.
In summary, there surely isn’t anyone considering a purchase of Dinosaur Jr. deluxe reissues who doesn’t own a copy of this record. You don’t need telling how good it is. What’s important here are the bonus materials – and there’s more than enough real gold to entice pretty much everyone. Of the handful of studio cuts, a fuzzy cover of Flying Burrito Brothers’ ‘Hot Burrito #2’ (originally from the b-side of the ‘Get Me’ 7”) is a natural fit for J., and a perfect addition to the main album material. Also great, ‘Turnip Farm’ sort of sounds like Dinosaur Jr. reworking the core of ‘Cortez The Killer’ and contrasting a fantastically moody riff with a cracked vocal, while ‘Keebin’ is a enjoyable enough semi-acoustic oddity that sounds like the springboard for a couple of later Dinosaur epics. At a time when Dinosaur Jr.’s 7”s and CD singles aren’t quite as easy to find as they once had been, these are welcome additions for anyone looking to revisit this period in the band’s history.
In terms of live material, this set takes a side step by exploring BBC sessions – one for the Evening Session and one for Peel (he did feature bands that weren’t Mark E. Smith or David Gedge fronted!). Both are excellent. Although only short, The Evening Session includes fine acoustic takes of ‘Severed Lips’ and ‘Thumb’, but for the bigger fan, the Peel Session is especially notable since it starts with a Mike Johnson solo number ‘Noon At Dawn’. Mike’s song sounds like Dinosaur is the middle of a real downer [his ‘Year of Mondays’ LP is an essential listen]. Three semi-acoustic renditions of Dinosaur tunes are also worthy additions. The once semi-noisy ‘Hide’ is a completely different beast when heard acoustically, even with a backdrop of distortion, while ‘Get Me’ and ‘Keeblin’ lend a great insight into stripped down slacker sounds. If you enjoy these, J.’s ‘Martin + Me’ album is necessary further listening.
A collection of live tracks recorded in St. Paul in 1993 rounds out the second disc with great performances of ‘Tarpit’, ‘Raisans’ and ‘Thumb’ joining a selection of newer material. Early outings of the soon to be classics ‘Start Choppin’, ‘Out There’ show how there’s as much anger in the then new songs when played live. It’s worth noting, though, that while these eight live performances are previously unreleased, it’s with good reason: they’re obviously from a bootlegged source. There’s a lot of echo; a slightly distant vocal and almost no bass throughout, making them of interest to hardcore fans only. Still, if you consider yourself such, they’re nice to have.
WITHOUT A SOUND
In many ways, ‘Without A Sound’ seems like an album hampered by ‘Where You Been’s popularity. Having tasted chart success, the bulk of the album settles into a comfort zone with sounds that could be easily interchanged with the best bits of its predecessor. That said, when it’s great, it’s bloody marvellous.
‘I Don’t Think So’ and ‘Yeah Right’ sound great years after the fact and are the kind of tracks you’d definitely wheel out for a first time listener as they capture J.’s fine balance between power pop melodies and Crazy Horse obsessions perfectly. The acoustic ‘Outta Hand’ was, perhaps, the best exponent from the band’s fuzzy alt-folk sound at the time of release and ‘Even You’ – another variant of the blueprint set by ‘Get Me’ – serves up some enjoyable, lurching riffs. These tracks, combined with the hit ‘Feel The Pain’ – a basic, but thrilling piece of slacker rock that wantonly speeds and slows with a routine brilliance – are worth the asking price. Also noteworthy is the loveliest of the band’s quiet songs ‘Seemed Like The Thing To Do’, which places a fragile vocal and sparsely used acoustic guitar against a fantastic, shimmering melody. It’s very much “Dinosaur Jr. plays Big Star”; something deserving of classic status and a wonderful deep album cut. The rest of the album could be J., Mike and Murph approaching autopilot, but there are no duff tracks, even if it could be said the tunes occasionally sound a little less inventive. When a record contains something as etheral as ‘Seemed Like The Thing To Do’, though, it’s easy to forgive any possible filler material.
Cherry Red’s 2CD set adds some interesting bonus material. Instrumental takes of a few key tracks will likely be of interest to obsessives only, but for everyone else, there’s a big draw with the inclusion of an eleven track BBC recording. Sourced from Brixton Academy on the ‘Without A Sound’ tour, the show was issued in part on ‘Keeblin’, the Australian 2CD Tour Edition version of this album in the 90s. Obviously, a full show – or something resembling it – allows for a greater insight and the unreleased versions of ‘Little Fury Things’ and ‘Not You Again’ present the band on full power. The unreleased live versions of ‘Quest’, ‘Thumb’ and ‘Out There’ are certainly welcome additions and the previously circulated live versions of ‘Get Me’, ‘Grab It’ and ‘Feel The Pain’ remain a great representation of the band’s live sound at this point. None of this really generates the excitement of the live set on ‘Green Mind’, but it’s still worth picking up…especially if you never bought the Aussie 2CD at the time.
HAND IT OVER
Continuing the band’s trajectory towards more commercial material, 1997’s ‘Hand It Over’ would be the last Dinosaur Jr album for eigtht years. It sometimes sounds a little poppier via its use of quirky keyboard riffs, but at its heart, it’s still an enjoyable record. From the noisy exuberance of ‘I’m Insane’ and ‘Can’t We Move This’, to the fantastic distorto-jangle of ‘I Know Yer Insane’ and the hazy, Neil Young inspired ‘Gotta Know’, the album has all the hallmarks of a great Dinosaur Jr. elpee, just not the better knownhit single of its predecessors. Listening back years later, it definitely doesn’t show any sign of a band about to split and is perhaps a lot better than it’s often given credit for. In the moody ‘Loaded’, especially, there’s a great sound that’s in line with the best moments of ‘Where You Been’. J’s multi-layered guitar work is especially entertaining in the way his string bending adds distinctive sounds in the right speaker channel during the main riff. In a more melodic vein, the cryptically titled ‘Mick’ finds J. and company putting a much noisier slant on something that could have been pulled from a Teenage Fanclub or Gigolo Aunts LP, proving that beneath all the bluster, Dinosaur Jr. so often had great songs. Given how much good material can be found on ‘Hand It Over’ it seems rather perplexing that the album opens with a genuine musical slog, as the bulk of ‘I Don’t Think’ features Mascis wailing in falsetto over a sludgy dirge. If you can make it past that, though, there’s a lot of fun to be had.
As with the other reissues, it’s the bonus materials that are of the most interest to the bigger fan, of course, and this reissue features some superb extras. The entirety of the ‘Take A Run At The Sun’ EP is presented alongside the main album and it’s lovely as it’s pretty much a Mascis solo release with a very jangly, sixties vibe). A cover of The Germs’ ‘What We Do Is Secret’ is a quirky piece of hardcore that harks back to J.’s time in punk band Deep Wound and two solo acoustic live takes of ‘Never Bought It’ and ‘Sure Not Over You’ are released here for the first time. Reminiscent of the ‘Martin + Me’ live album, these are definitely destined to be fan-pleasers.
As with ‘Without A Sound’, the huge nugget here is the second disc, featuring a full nine song live set recorded in Stockholm. In this case, everything is completely unreleased and fans can marvel at the electric Dinosaur as they hammer through an especially distorted ‘Never Bought It’, a brilliantly lop-sided ‘Feel The Pain’ and a full-scale dive into ‘Sludgefeast’, where J. proves the Mascis/Johnson/Murph line up has as much fire as the earlier band. A touch more melodic, ‘Freak Scene’ comes across with vigour and ‘What Else Is New’ really captures the way in which a typical live set from this tour could be dominated by J’.s angular guitar work. It’s pretty raw in places, but practically Thin Lizzy’s ‘Live & Dangerous’ compared to their 1997 Reading Festival appearance (presumably still lurking in the BBC archives) where the vocals were inaudible. Anyway, for fans, this live set is a decent collection filler. It isn’t as good as the set featured on the ‘Green Mind’ reissue, but still very much worth having.
If you’re unsure as to whether you need to upgrade whichever previous edition(s) you already have, don’t be. Just get these. For those who discovered the band around 1992 with the release of ‘Where You Been’ especially, these reissues are a goldmine. At last, a lot of much loved material can be appreciated further with the addition of so many period extras. It’s always good when reissues are done “right” and this is definitely one of those times…
[In addition to the four 2CD sets, coloured vinyl editions are also available with selected bonus materials.]