To paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, there are a few things you can count on in this life: 1) (spoiler alert!) You’re gonna die, 2) You’re probably gonna pay some taxes and 3) Despite being a pretty boring live act, Dinosaur Jr. will always crank out albums that are wall-to-wall crunchy guitars, pounding drums, and Lou Barlow doing whatever it is he does (which appears to be mostly hoarding his best stuff for his solo albums). That Ben Franklin was a prescient fellow, no?
My first exposure to Dinosaur Jr. was when I worked at Tower Records in Harvard Square. Their first three albums were reissued and I got in trouble for blasting “Freak Scene” on our in-store stereo system because J. Mascis says, “fuck” in that song. But I dug the sound, because Dino Jr. seemed to have no qualms about that fact that their music was just three guys plugging in and playing really fucking loud. Yeah, there were some words in there, but mostly you were waiting for J. Mascis to bust out into a face-melting guitar solo. His solos were (and still are) perhaps most impressive to me not for their virtuosity (although, seriously, Joe Satriani and his ilk can go fuck themselves – J. Mascis is so good at the guitar you kinda want to kick him in the nuts) but for the fact that they never bore me, nor do they piss me off. I listen to, I dunno, anything by Joe Satriani or Kenny Wayne Shepherd or any of those wanky guitar guys and I get really angry really fast. Because playing a bunch of notes really quickly doesn’t mean you’re making great music. It means you know scales. Mascis expresses more in one bent note than Joe Satriani has in his entire canon of banal noodles and finger-tapping bullshit. (Incidentally, and I know I’ve said this before, The Hold Steady’s Tad Kubler is also far better than all those shred nitwits.)
Dinosaur Jr. “came back” in 2007 with the super-impressive Beyond (it was the first album since their first three that featured the original Dino line-up of Mascis, Low Barlow and awesomely-named drummer Murph) – an album that blew critics’ minds because it didn’t suck, like many reunion albums do. In fact, if I can fess up a dirty little secret here, Beyond is still my favorite Dinosaur Jr. album. Over the last couple of years, Dinosaur Jr. has let their pop sensibilities shine and they’ve crafted some of the best melodies of their career while still maintaining the things that make them great (namely, Mr. Mascis’s guitar playing). Farm, their second album since the reunion, compares quite favorably to Beyond, though it’s not quite as good as that record in my none-too-humble estimation.
Farm, as you might guess by the hippie-art cover, is a bit jammier in places (three songs surpass six minutes) and it suffers a little for it, though, overall, it’s still a great album, especially this time of year, when you can blast it out of open car windows. Mascis brings a little more variation to his guitar attacks (although I’m convinced that a Dinosaur Jr. song doesn’t end until he’s played every single note in every position on the neck), Barlow’s bass work dances around the squalling guitars and his vocal turns are, as usual, superb (Barlow’s tunes always get bagged on by other critics, but I liked “Back to Your Heart” on Beyond and I really like Farm‘s “Your Weather”). And Murph does what a drummer in a band like this has to do – he beats the shit out of his drums. Just destroys ’em. Well done, Murph.
In a lot of ways, Dinosaur Jr. reminds me of my two-year old pair of sandals. I bought ’em at an outlet store a couple of years ago and, this being L.A., I’ve worn them nearly every day since. I even did a five mile hike into downtown Berkley in the damn things (ill-advised, that was, but I was on a mission to get Evil Urges, I happened to be in the East Bay, and I knew there was an Amoeba over there somewhere. Fortunately, I got a ride back and managed, somehow, to avoid blisters). These sandals are broken in to the point that I hardly feel like I’m wearing shoes when I’ve got ’em on. They’re comfy. I know that they’re not the prettiest pieces of footwear at this point, but they’re awfully comforting. And that’s how I feel about Dinosaur Jr. They’re not gonna change the world or anything, but that was never their mission. All evidence would indicate they are out to rock as hard as they possibly can, and they do that very well. They’re a guitar band that makes me want to play my guitar really loud, and that’s what a great guitar band should do.
I know a lot of critics have claimed Farm outshines its predecessor, but to me, what makes Beyond the better bet is brevity. Farm bogs down in its longer songs (except, for some reason, “Plans”, which features one of J. Mascis’s catchier vocal melodies) and that detracts from the shorter, better joys of songs like “Pieces” and “Over It.” But if you like Dinosaur Jr., you’ll like Farm (if you’re new to Dino, ease in with Beyond, which is a thunderously rad record) because, like my sandals, barring a catastrophe, Dinosaur Jr. will never change in the best possible way a band can never change.