F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote, “There are no second acts in American lives.” Had Dinosaur Jr. existed during his time, he might have taken that train of thought off the tracks.
Growing out of the same fertile ’80s underground that nurtured groups like The Replacements and Sonic Youth, the power trio of J Mascis, Lou Barlow, and Murph are going strong. That the notoriously loud band continue to release vital and catchy records, decades after forming, is impressive — especially when you consider how many of their contemporaries, like The Pixies, have been unable to keep the magic going.
Dinosaur Jr. aren’t just a gold standard for guitar heroes to strive toward. They’re a shining example of how an old band can pull off a great second act.
The band’s enduring relevance is even more impressive when you take into account all the interpersonal history. For years, the tumultuous relationships between Mascis, Barlow, and Murph were the go-to example for toxic band conflicts. Few things scream “creative differences” as clearly as an agonized Barlow shouting “Why don’t you like me?!” over and over again on 1988’s “Don’t.” As author and music journalist Michael Azerrad points out in his writings about the band, it’s impossible to listen to that song without imagining Barlow directly addressing Mascis.
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In some respects, Dinosaur Jr. have become the anti-Pixies. Both bands share a number of similarities: they’re incredibly influential “college rock” bands; both dealt with serious band drama between dueling songwriters (in both cases, a singer/guitarist versus a bassist); both original lineups dissolved over irreconcilable differences; and both later embarked on successful reunion tours with all their core members. But key elements set them on different paths.
After an eight-year hiatus, Dinosaur Jr. reunited in 2005. The reunion followed several hatchet-burying moments between Mascis and Barlow. The two of them played together on some Stooges songs in London in 2002. Mascis regained the masters to the band’s seminal SST albums in 2004 so they could put out reissues of their old catalog. And they reunited as their high school band, Deep Wound, to play an autism benefit show.
The trio could’ve played a few tinnitus-inducing reunion shows and called it a day, but they were able to do what fellow reunion acts couldn’t pull off because they still had their mojo in the studio.
Starting with Beyond in 2007, the guitar heroes put out albums that you could play alongside classics like Bug and You’re Living All Over Me and they would hold up as worthy successors. The same cannot be said for The Pixies’ post-reunion release Head Carrier, whose best quality is serving as a reminder to listen to Surfer Rosa again.
The key difference is quality. When The Pixies initially got back together, the first reunion tour was a fiery comeback. But it was a fire that quickly burnt out. By the time they embarked on a Doolittle album tour, it was clear the reunion was fueled by a passion for paychecks. If the subsequent departure of bassist Kim Deal didn’t confirm that the dream of a revitalized Pixies was dead, the band’s new material did.
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Perhaps Dinosaur Jr. have aged so well because their sonic formula is “evergreen.” Mascis remains the band’s center. His guitar still soars and roars in all its fuzzed out, wailing glory. His playing has the ragged looseness you’d associate with Crazy Horse or The Grateful Dead, but it’s filtered through the aggression and noise of punk and hardcore. It’s hard to imagine stoner rock existing as a genre without Mascis’ riffs as a Rosetta Stone.
Mascis’ vocals are just as integral to the band’s identity as his six-string pyrotechnics. His sweet, lazy drawl sounds like he just got out of bed. There’s a timidity to his vocals that forms an interesting contrast with the band’s louder-than-a-bomb sound. No matter how gray his long hair gets, Mascis still sounds like a kid shyly confessing a crush while staring deep into the loops of his shoelaces.
And while the band’s recent work doesn’t return to the noisy depths plumbed in their SST years, the trio have taken the band’s ’90s sound (when Mascis was the only one in the driver’s seat) and opened it up further. The new albums continue the more melodic, cleaner production style of albums like Where You Been, but give them a looser, live feel. And they don’t skimp on the solos. Songs like “I Walk for Miles” off 2016’s Give a Glimpse of What Yer Not show that Mascis still has the goods. No one in indie rock can solo so furiously and make it sound so effortless.
Dinosaur Jr. are scheduled to perform on Tuesday, October 17, at The Van Buren. Tickets are $20 to $40 via thevanburenphx.com.