Give a second look to Dinosaur Jr.'s second act
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
Dinosaur Jr. is riding a nice wave at the moment. High on solid reviews and excellent crowds in support of I Bet on Sky, their third album since J Mascis reunited with Lou Barlow and Murph to form the classic lineup, and the positive vibes have helped restore the band their rightful due in rock and roll. They were pioneers in the late 1980s, mixing guitar freakouts and hardcore with a classic rock sensibility, and their place as influential artists has been re-acknowledged.
But that hasn’t extended through the entire catalog, and their later records, specifically 1997’s Hand It Over, are still somewhat ignored when discussing the band.
So what’s to be found on Hand It Over? Barlow and Murph aren’t present, rendering this effectively a J Mascis solo record and placing it in a dustbin of albums not considered to be true representations of Dinosaur Jr. In revisionist history, the band effectively stops after 1991’s Green Mind and doesn’t re-appear until their reunion, 2005 on. But there were three good albums in between, along with a handful of singles, and Hand It Over is the strongest of the bunch.
The requisite noise and guitar histrionics screaming above Mascis’ buried vocals are present on most of the songs, which assemble as some of the most interesting of his career, in or out of Dinosaur Jr. “Nothing’s Goin’ On,” for example, works as one of the better examples of the band’s music. Mascis warbles, “I know you really don’t buy it/Nothing’s really goin’ on” in his strained, groggy delivery in between bouts of six-string noise, heavy on effects pedals and tremolo bar workouts. It’s good enough that it could be played alongside other recognized Dinosaur Jr. classics, like “Freak Scene” or “The Wagon,” and presented as a representative piece for the band.
But there are enough left turns on Hand It Over to make it an engaging listen, one that separates itself from the rest of the catalog. Trumpet pops up as a weird little color on “I’m Insane,” and the closing “Gotta Know” breaks the band’s semi-tradition of closing albums with long, sprawling guitar workouts, opting instead for something slower and introspective, though certainly not quiet.
It was a solid record, and a return to form at the time. While 1993’s Where You Been and 1994’s Without a Sound were good, they lacked the same sense of adventure that always punctuated their music. That creative spark was back for Hand It Over, serving as a graceful, final chapter for the band.
In this case, that end was rather quiet. Shortly after Hand It Over was released and all the requisite promotion was done, Mascis settled into a solo career, finally comfortable with putting his own name on the recordings he had been overseeing for so long. The acoustic-based Martin + Me preceded this record, a sidestep of sorts, but Mascis soon began touring with an electric band under the name of J Mascis + The Fog. His next records were billed under that flag, and Dinosaur Jr. was officially a footnote in American rock lore.
That air of “essential listening” that enveloped the band was absent as the 1990s came to an end. It was a product of the times, as many of the former indie bands not named Soundgarden struggled to get the necessary attention of their major labels. The pressure of having to deliver sales that matched what their powerful friends had attained in the first part of the decade swallowed a number of bands — Screaming Trees and Mudhoney were quietly dropped by their respective labels around this time, for example.
It’s a shame, too, because all those bands still made great music that didn’t fit the template of middle-of-the-road rock or the brainless nu-metal typified by Limp Bizkit. So Dinosaur Jr. was pushed by the wayside, seemingly for good.
Of course, history has a funny way of rewriting itself. By 2005, Mascis was again on speaking terms with Barlow and Murph, and an initial reunion to support the rerelease of the first three albums became a full-blown revitalization. 10 years after the band quietly packed it in after Hand It Over, the original lineup cranked out Beyond, a frantic, high-powered record that made the band a vital enterprise again.
It brought the band back into the spotlight, and allowed their catalog to warrant public reinvestigation. The early recordings are classics, and acknowledged as such. And though Barlow and Murph were absent, Hand It Over deserves a second chance. It can likely be found in used CD bins for a dollar, along with all the typical digital avenues. Seek it out, give it a few spins and see if its blend of guitars and soft-spoken drawl doesn’t burrow a place in your brain.
E-mail Nick Tavares at firstname.lastname@example.org