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Dinosaur Jr. And the Best Band Reunion of All Time

On August 3, 2016

by JR Moores

Dinosaur Jr

People like to throw their rattles out of the stroller whenever a vintage band reunites. “Sell outs!” they bellowed at the Sex Pistols two decades after they’d been manufactured by a fashion svengali. “You’re only in it for the money!” they yelled when hipster entrepreneurs LCD Soundsystem reformed approximately seven minutes after their “final” show. “What the hell is this?” they asked the Smashing Pumpkins when Billy Corgan turned up with a couple of strangers and occasionally his original drummer. “It’s been so long I can’t actually remember if you guys even split up in the first place,” they said of My Bloody Valentine, “but either way we’re still tremendously outraged.” And all with the effectiveness of Charlton Heston shouting at the Statue of Liberty’s blank face at the end of Planet Of The Apes. That’s right, they finally did it, the maniacs. They blew up their legacies, obliterating your beloved memories in the process. But kneeling in your loincloth, punching the wet sand and damning them all to hell isn’t going to change anything. Like them or loathe them, reformations are just a part of life like death, taxes and the fact that you will never finish Ulysses because you’d prefer to spend your ever-dwindling time on this planet reading blogs about fuzz-rock reunions. You’ve just got to deal with it, Heston.

By all means criticize the acts that do it badly. Adam Lambert is not the reincarnation of Freddie Mercury, Courtney Love can’t just plaster the word “Hole” across any old mob of random nobodies and The Spice Girls’ 2007 comeback single “Headlines” was not all I’d hoped it would be. But there’s no point in having a pop at every single band that gets back together simply for the very act getting back together, because the fact of the matter is that some of them do it very well indeed. A case in point is Dinosaur Jr, who may have scored the greatest reformation ever.

For a long time, many of us considered a Dinosaur Jr reunion to be about as likely as it was for a multiply bankrupt, compulsively lying real estate mogul with a periwig fashioned from Big Bird’s ass feathers to become a viable contender for the highest office in American government, but stranger things have happened. Even while Dinosaur Jr’s original incarnation was still intact in the late 80s, relationships between its members were extraordinarily fraught. Tour-bus bickering and the musicians’ inability to communicate with one another in anything even vaguely resembling a constructive manner resulted in physical fights both off-stage and on.

Formed in 1984, this was a band made up of three very different personalities. Singer and guitarist J Mascis was laidback, withdrawn and monosyllabic. Bassist Lou Barlow was a sensitive soul, anxiety-ridden and desperate for approval. Drummer Murph, meanwhile, saw Mascis as a tyrant who would dictate every precise drumbeat he was expected to play. Relations became increasingly sour as Dinosaur Jr reached the end of its initial three-album run. Their contract with SST meant that all royalty checks were sent to Mascis, who was accused of failing to distribute fair payments to his colleagues. Disillusioned by Dinosaur Jr and distracted by his Sebadoh sideproject, Barlow didn’t contribute a single song to 1988’s Bug. He did sing its final track, mind, when Mascis sadistically asked him to bawl the words “Why don’t you like me?” over and over again until he coughed up blood. Erratic in concerts, Lou would sometimes start playing a different song to the rest of the band, or resort to making horrible tuneless noises with his bass, or playing loud tape collages over the PA so as to ruin his band’s sound.

When Barlow was finally kicked out, J and Murph gave their ex-bassist the impression that the group was splitting up entirely when they had, in fact, already conspired to replace him. Barlow went on to write several Sebadoh songs about what an “asshole” Mascis was, sued him for unpaid royalties and didn’t exactly hold back from slating him in the press. From the late 80s until well into the early 2000s, the chances of their reconciliation seemed slimmer than a method-acting stick insect auditioning for Christian Bale’s role in The Machinist.

By the time Dinosaur Jr split in 1997, only Mascis remained from the original trio (Murph had quit in 1993) so, if he’d wanted to, it would’ve been within Mascis’ rights to reform without Murph and/or Barlow. After all, Evan Dando managed to “reform” the Lemonheads with two guys from The Descendents who had never played with him before. To his credit, Mascis didn’t do that, although the band made no bones about their reunion being fundamentally money-motivated. Even so, Mascis & co. took on the task in a more cautious and tasteful manner than most acts and you can’t imagine they’d have persevered with it, and certainly not for this long, had the vibe not felt right.

They were also shrewdly careful to take it one step at a time. Dinosaur Jr’s initial reunion was a relatively unflashy tour of decent-sized venues and modest festival spots during which the trio performed material from those first three albums they’d made together. This evolved, privately at first, into the creation of a new record, while extra songs began creeping into their sets, ones that Mascis had released with later incarnations of Dinosaur Jr after Barlow had left (such as 1992’s marvellous “Start Choppin”) and even those on which neither Barlow or Murph had played (1994’s “Feel The Pain” for example), much to their audience’s delight.

The reformation has proved remarkably stable, even if there has been the odd shaky moment. Just before the release of their comeback album, Barlow revealed to the NME that “J doesn't say anything directly, he only speaks through his manager,” suggesting their communication skills remained traditionally ropey, while Murph was absent from a run of shows in 2013 because, according to Barlow, “he ran away the day before we were supposed to leave” and “didn’t get on the plane.” Titbits such as these provide a little frisson for the fans - perhaps they might yet implode and start punching each other in the face halfway through a gig - but ultimately Dinosaur Jr’s audience is just happy to see J, Lou and Murph getting along, playing together as loudly as they ever did, if not even louder. It’s difficult to ascertain whether this notoriously loud band is in fact louder than it ever was, although they can surely afford more powerful equipment these days. Suffice to say, when my own brother saw them perform in 2006 he was rendered temporarily deaf for the following two days.

One thing’s for sure, Dinosaur Jr’s studio recordings sound better than ever. Their cheaply-recorded ‘80s albums were pretty muggy affairs. The band’s output became crisper in the post-Lou ‘90s period but the production jobs on their post-reunion records have been even superior, thanks to the professional studio installed on the third floor of J’s house in Amherst, Massachusetts. Production makes little difference unless you have the songs to go with it, of course. Even Steve Albini’s engineering prowess wasn’t enough rescue the Stooges’ dreadful return on The Weirdness. “Rock critics wouldn’t like this at all,” Iggy sang on its opening track. He was right, they didn’t like it, and with bloody good reason. The proto-punk legends suddenly sounded as sexily dangerous as a flailing sardine.

In contrast, Dinosaur Jr’s comeback album Beyond, released a couple of months after The Weirdness as it happens, featured some of J’s greatest songwriting to date, including the catchy mini-anthem “This Is All I Came To Do” and the two-part epic “Pick Me Up.” Despite the years spent apart, Beyond managed to make Dinosaur Jr’s reformation feel like a seamless continuation of what had gone before. It was like they’d never been away, as if all those years of public animosity between Lou and J had merely been an elaborate smokescreen and for all that time they’d actually carried on secretly jamming together twice a week before hanging out to drink milkshakes and watch The Simpsons together on a big purple couch.

Proving that Beyond was no happy accident, some reviewers judged its follow-up, Farm, even greater. It was certainly louder, especially if you got the European CD pressing that was accidentally manufactured with a 3db volume increase due to a software error. 2012’s I Bet On Sky was lighter and breezier than its predecessor, with acoustic guitars and keyboards appearing every now and then to embellish the group’s signature alt-rock sound. You might know what to expect when purchasing a Dinosaur Jr album - J’s drawling vocals interspersed with regular bursts of virtuoso soloing, backed by that formidably bruising rhythm section, with the requisite two tracks written and sung by Barlow - but what you shouldn’t expect is any noticeable dip in quality from any prior release. At least that’s how it’s worked out so far and the new Dinosaur Jr record is no exception. Give A Glimpse Of What Yer Not ticks all the right boxes with its pedal-drenched melodic heaviness, exuberant fuzzy solos and two heart-on-sleeve Barlow songs updating us on his latest emotional insecurities.

In a recent interview with Crack Magazine, Murph described himself and his cohorts as “kind of perfectionists” who want everything to sound as good as they can possibly make it, without worrying about the past and just “trying to produce a good product”. They’ve nailed that a few times now and, seeing as this is a vinyl-worshipping site, it’s worth noting how much care has gone into those products. There have been limited pressings in coloured vinyl (including, naturally, J’s beloved purple), bonus discs with exclusive self-penned songs and cover versions, and beautifully trippy cartoon artwork by Marq Spusta that you could just stare at through pink eyes for days on end.

Unlike those groups who reform to blitzkrieg their way across the major festivals, raking in as much cash as feasibly possible in as little time as it takes, before dispersing again without offering even a whiff of new material or the impression of genuine camaraderie (those capitalist pig-dogs Rage Against The Machine spring to mind)and unlike the vintage acts who have limped onwards with missing members and fresh material of a frankly subpar standard (sorry, Pixies, but Indie Cindy made Trompe Le Monde look like Beethoven’s 9th), Dinosaur Jr had the members, the material, the chemistry and the care it took to pull off the perfect reformation. Long may they drawl.


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