Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art
If Neil Young is, as Kurt Cobain said, “the Godfather of Grunge,” Dinosaur Jr. frontman J Mascis is his consiglieri — a mastermind whose screaming, crunching guitar ushered in an era and helped define alt rock in the 1990s. Formed in Amherst, Mass., in 1984, Dinosaur Jr. has maintained its looming presence over its three-plus decades, waxing and waning as genres come and go, but re-emerging in the last few years to assume their mantle as elder statesmen of viscerally badass rock-‘n’-roll. The band’s latest record, Give a Glimpse of What Yer Not, dropped this summer; they are here, as conquering Western Mass. heroes, to support it.
Sub Pop labelmates Luluc have mesmerized a new generation of folk listeners with Passerby, the band’s critically-acclaimed debut album co-produced by Aaron Dessner of The National. NPR’s Bob Boilen called Passerby his favorite album of the year on All Songs Considered, and the band has toured with The National, Father John Misty, and J Mascis.
Let’s face facts — in 2016 it is remarkable that there’s a new Dinosaur Jr. album to go ape over. After all, the original line-up of the band (J Mascis, Lou Barlow & Murph) only recorded three full albums during their initial run in the 1980s. Everyone was gob-smacked when they reunited in 2005. Even more so when they opted to stay together, as they have for 11 years now. And with the release of Give a Glimpse, this trio has released more albums in the 21st Century than they did in the 20th. It’s enough to make a man take a long, thoughtful slug of maple-flavored bourbon and count some lucky stars.
Last year, 2015, saw the amazing live shows Dinosaur Jr. played to celebrate the 30th anniversary of their eponymous debut LP. There were too damn many guest stars poking their noses into songs and amps for some of us, but the shebang was upful enough, and the songs they were celebrating are amazing enough, that it was tough to gripe. But essentially that was a nostalgia fest — a very fine nostalgia fest — but it’s the future that beckons the living. So you have to be pretty damn chuffed that the band has managed to pull another magnificent rabbit out of their collective hat.
The songs on Give a Glimpse were recorded over the past year or so, again at Amherst’s Bisquiteen Studio. The sound is great and roaring with J’s various bleeding-ear psychedelic guitar touches oozing their way into the smudge-pop modeling, while Murph’s drums pound like Fred Flintstone’s feet, and Lou’s bass weaves back and forth between proggy melodicism and post-core thug-hunch. Of the 11 songs presented, nine are J’s. Mascis has had so many projects going at various times — from the retro glam of Sweet Apple to the metal dunt of Witch to the ostrich-rock overload of Heavy Blanket — it’s always a little shocking he can compartmentalize well enough to keep his tunes with Dinosaur Jr. sounding so instantly recognizable. Which is not to say they’re interchangeable, it’s just that he has a very idiosyncratic way of structurally assembling and presenting the songs. Even when they’re not being played in concert — with amps turned to 12, and vibrating ’til they glow red — the way he hits his guitar strings has a unique quality that immediately lets you know you’re listening to Dino. It’s a very cool trick, and something only a small percentage of guitarists ever manage.
The other two songs here were written and sung by Lou, and they’re quite great as well. Although Barlow’s template and palette are more mercurial and shifting (as they are with his other ongoing projects, like Sebadoh), the two here have a consonant resonance. Both songs carry the same vibe as Roger McGuinn’s great early sides with the Byrds (although this has to do more with spirit than specific notes) reminding us that albums like Fifth Dimension and Notorious Byrd Brothers were among the main models for East Coast bands like the Soft White Underbelly. “Love Is…” and “Left/Right” represent the same kind of style displacement.
Mascis’ songs offer a lot of formal style moves as well. Over the last three decades, J’s songwriting has continued to pursue confusion, isolation and mis-communication as its main themes (which is one of the reasons he’s always been the artist-of-choice for so many misfits), but he has really worked on the craft of songwriting, and he’s constantly improving his ability to convey these feelings rather than merely inhabit them. “Lost All Day” might be the most eloquently sad of the songs on Give a Glimpse, but my favorite is probably “Mirror,” which comes off like the best song Blue Oyter Cult didn’t record for Agents of Fortune. The opening (and repeating) line, “I’ve been crawling around since I met you,” branded itself onto my brain the instant I heard it. But then, “Goin’ Down” (not the Freddie King tune) is a stone classic as well. And “Tiny” has the prettiest pop architecture. “Be A Part” continually makes me flash on the first time I heard “Cowgirl in the Sand.” “I Told Everyone” is almost like a Bowie tribute when you hear it from another room. “Good to Know” has the record’s most insane guitar solo. “I Walk for Miles” contains the most thuggish riffs. “Knocked Around” features the most elegant use of falsetto. And the whole damn thing is great.
With all the insanity that is stalking the Earth in 2016, it’s nice to have something to rely on. Who’d’ve dared to think it’d be Dinosaur Jr.?
What to Expect
Standing room only in either our premier venue, the Hunter Center. Preferred ticket area is standing room by the stage. A full bar serves Bright Idea Brewing and Berkshire Mountain Distillery spirits, and a full dinner menu from Lickety Split is available before the show.
photo by Levi Walton