Digging Up Indie Rock Fossils
by Julio Diaz
Ear Bleeding Country: The Best of Dinosaur Jr.
I feel like I am writing an obituary and not a review; in many ways, I guess I am. Dinosaur Jr. were the quintessential indie rock band. Before Pavement started flying their slacker flag and several years before Nirvana rode to the top of the charts with their mix of punk, pop, and Sabbath inspired riffs, Dinosaur Jr. raised the bar several notches for sheer guitar pyrotechnics. Arising in the mid-eighties, Dinosaur Jr. were contemporaries of Sonic Youth (when they mattered), The Replacements, The Pixies, and a whole crop of other bands. Yet, where Dinosaur Jr.’s genius resided was in their clever juxtaposition of ear-splitting loudness and lyrics that were laconic and reflected a navel-gazing, introverted perspective. At this point I should make clear that after the ejection of Lou Barlow in the late ’80s (after a fistfight on stage), Dinosaur Jr. rapidly became a solo vehicle for J Mascis. In fact, many of the tracks on this disc were recorded with Mascis playing most of the instruments.
The tracks on this release, primarily from Dinosaur’s stint at Warner Brothers, demonstrate their musical prowess and mastery of melody. Yet above it all, I should point out Mascis’ guitar playing. It was no small measure of the esteem that many held him in when, in early ’92-’93, Spin (when it mattered) ran a cover article which pictured him and declared: J MASCIS IS GOD! Tongue in cheek and hyperbole aside, listening to this album, it is refreshing to hear the range that Mascis displays, especially in light of the current crop of musicians on the airwaves with their tried and true power chords.
In an interview, Mascis once explained that he originally learned to play the drums, partially out of inspiration from John Bonham, drummer of Led Zeppelin. So when he picked up the guitar, he had the same inspiration, and this goes quite a ways in explaining his technique. His sound ranges from power chords, slashing notes, and cascading torrents of feedback. Listening to some of these tracks, I can imagine tiny rivulets of light and electricity arcing away from the neck of his guitar.
This isn’t to say the entire album is guitar-centered — well… yes it is. But I always enjoyed Dinosaur Jr. for the lyrics. Mascis had the oft-confusing and troubling world of relationships pegged dead to rights. That, coupled with his singing voice (that sounds more like a croak), leaves no doubt that most of the time, he couldn’t give a fuck less. And, it was okay, quite cool, and so liberating.