If you have a list of alternative icons you’d love to get into but don’t know where to start, get ready to cross some of them off with PRIMER, in which we guide you through the varied careers of renowned indie icons. This week Dan Berube discusses modern rock legends Dinosaur Jr.
In about a week and a half the new Dinosaur Jr. record I Bet on Sky comes out. Judging by the blistering first single “Watch the Corners” and the goofy, earth tone psychedelia of the album jacket, this, their 10th full length outing in 27 years, is completely, satisfyingly business-as-usual. Principle songwriter, singer, and lead guitarist J. Mascis has stayed committed to the sound, or rather blend of sounds, that he unmistakably innovated in the late eighties – a mix of metal, classic rock, hardcore, folk, and country. I’m labelling this style “proto-grunge” by way of explanation, but a buzz-phrase this glib shouldn’t slip by without a bunch of caveats. Dinosaur Jr. has, in my opinion, kept its hands clean of grunge’s icky legacy, and hopefully over the course of this Primer I can begin to explain how this massively influential, oft-copied band has stayed exactly the same for nearly three decades without losing its credibility or visceral appeal. They are a case study in consistency, and their discography is essential background listening for an informed understanding of modern rock.
“Watch the Corners”
Music historians often cite Neil Young and Crazy Horse as the ancestor of grunge, pointing to the clear influence of Young and Danny Whitten’s sludgy, sometimes punk, sometimes cock-rock guitar playing, and the group’s brilliant marriage of folk melody and garage energy. There’s no questioning this line of inheritance, but I think a lot of abridged TV histories of ‘90s culture neglect key steps between Crazy Horse and Nirvana. And the most important intermediary between this and this is almost definitely Dinosaur Jr.
Early on, Mascis was reluctant to admit his debt to Neil Young. He shot down comparisons with characteristic Gen X snark, and I think part of this was youthful contrarianism, but another part of it was the anxiety of influence. “Repulsion” off of the group’s 1985 full-length debut perfectly exemplifies both the influences and the influencing that I’m talking about. Note the searing “Cowgirl in the Sand”-esque lead breaks, the Cobain-like, mush-mouthed vocals, and the generally unvarnished production.
Beyond grunge, the specifics of this sound have swung in and out of fashion over the last 20 years – the noodly guitar solos, the off-key vocals, the fluid tempo – and part of why it sounds so current is that a lot of recent indie rock has venerated and imitated the big groups of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. But also, there’s a core of pretty timeless song writing and melodic craft that will definitely outlive grunge revival fashions. I place the best Dinosaur Jr. stuff in a loose category alongside the early music of Television and Roxy Music. It’s durable because it’s simple and well constructed, but also because it’s clever and idiosyncratic in a way that keeps getting rediscovered and imitated for its novelty. Television and Roxy Music pioneered Post-Punk and New Wave, while Mascis and his ilk kicked off a specific tradition of hard rock eclecticism that regularly crops up in college charts to this day. Here are a few choice cuts from their early records that I think are both in fashion in 2012 and are basically timeless and beyond fashion.
“Feel the Pain”
It’s worth noting that when I say that modern indie rock owes an obvious debt to Dinosaur Jr. I’m talking about some groups that have been hugely influential in their own right. Juno AwardTM winners Broken Social Scene, for example, have some clearly Dinosaur Jr. influenced songs, and have even covered “The Wagon” on tour and played shows as Mascis’s backing band. All you have to do is listen to “Major Label Debut” to see what I’m talking about.
“Major Label Debut”
With their newly bolstered living legend status, owing in part to these high profile indie rock patrons, Dinosaur Jr. has also gotten in on the gig of championing ‘rediscovered’ vintage folk rarities. Check out the Mascis-facilitated re-release of Sibylle Baier’s gorgeous, completely modern-sounding home recordings for another example of what I mean by music that is both timeless and conveniently fashionable. Also of note is this pleasingly amped up cover of Canadian psych folk artist Elyse Weinberg’s early seventies rarity “Houses”. Here we see Mascis passing on the favour of praising and popularizing his influences, and also, from a position of maturity, paying homage to the ear-frying guitar licks of none other than Mr. Neil Young.
AFTERTHOUGHT: Arsenio Hall + the Judgement Night soundtrack = rap rock history?! 1993 was truly a heady time for Western culture.