In the Wilderness: Dinosaur Jr, 1991-1997

In the Wilderness

In the Wilderness is a feature in which a group of Strange Currencies contributors examine an overlooked period of an artist’s career. While originally intended as a podcast, “social distancing” has necessitated a different approach. For the time being, In the Wilderness has taken shape in the form of a “Slack chat.”

For this week’s installment of In the Wilderness, I am joined by George Budney and Bert. We’ll be discussing the alt-rock icons, Dinosaur Jr. Formed in 1984, the Amherst, Massachusetts trio of J Mascis (guitar/vocals), Lou Barlow (bass), and Murph (drums) first made their name on the indie labels Homestead and SST – earning widespread critical praise for 1987’s You’re Living All Over Me and 1988’s Bug.

Following Bug, Dinosaur Jr signed to Sire Records, but not before their inner-group tension boiled over. Barlow left the band in 1989, and Murph would play a diminished role on subsequent albums, before leaving the group in 1994. By this point, Dinosaur Jr had essentially become synonymous with J Mascis, whose songs oozed “slacker charm,” while serving as a vehicle for his impressive guitar work.

Dinosaur Jr released four albums on Sire before Mascis retired the band’s name, following 1997’s Hand It Over. While the project’s commercial profile increased during this time, for many, their major label albums never quite matched the heights of their late-80s releases. The band’s original lineup reformed to critical acclaim in 2005, oddly leaving their 90s flirtation with the mainstream as something of a “forgotten transitional period.” We discuss those albums in this week’s chat:

NB: When did y’all first listen to Dinosaur Jr?

MR: I first heard them during the summer before I started high school. Where You Been (1993) was the current album, and I heard a couple of songs on the radio. I had gotten ahold of a couple of used copies of Spin from around 1991-92 that talked about them a lot, and it piqued my curiosity.

GB: This is one of the few wildernesses where it wasn’t experienced in real time for me. I heard “Feel the Pain” on MTV, but didn’t get into them until my late-20s. I was actually more familiar with J Mascis and The Fog.

NB: I got Green Mind (1991) and Whatever’s Cool With Me (1991) when they came out, but, at the same time I had Bug too – and I had stolen my brother’s Green Mind t-shirt.

GB: One of the best all-time band shirts. They were reselling it on tour last year. I started with Without a Sound (1994). That was it for a while for me. That record hooked me hard.

MR: My younger brother got Green Mind for Christmas in 1993. He was only ten, so that scores him some rare “cool points.” I think that was right around the time I got Where You Been. We also got You’re Living All Over Me at around the same time.

NB: I thought Mascis was the greatest guitarist of our generation… Still do.

GB: Certainly the loudest. Remind me to tell you about the time he and Mike Watt ruined my hearing.

MR: Yeah, Mascis was a rarity in “cool” music at the time, as a “proficient” guitarist. We can focus on some specific moments of his prowess as we go through the albums. Before we start diving into the albums, why does this make sense as a “wilderness”? To be honest, I’m not 100% sure that it does. It was, after all, the point in which their following grew quite a bit.

NB: Me neither. The albums after Without A Sound would really qualify.

GB: It does, because Green Mind is effectively a solo project – Murph is only on three tracks – after which time Mascis just took over.

MR: The band dynamic definitely changed with Green Mind.

NB: When Lou left and J was almost a one-man band, save Murph, it sounded quite different. It was a new band.

MR: YLAOM and Bug are pretty universally praised, and the later stuff less so, so that might make it a little more “wilderness-y.” So, maybe this wilderness isn’t quite as well-defined as some of the others that we’ve done, but it was a good excuse to revisit some records that were really important in my development as a music fan.

GB: I’ll run with that. For me personally, it isn’t a wilderness, it’s the heart of Dino Jr. These were the albums that I started with. I wonder if that’s because it sounds the most like the Fog stuff, which is where I started with Mascis.

MR: I would definitely consider YLAOM and Bug to be their two best, but these are (mostly) ones that I experienced in real-time, so they’re pretty special records for me.

GB: It seems a lot of our wilderness eras start with the various band’s major label eras – the break from the little guys.

MR: Something I’ve noticed about our “wilderness” eras is that they tend to coincide with our high school years as well.

NB: They do.

GB: Makes sense – target market. And you have time to be obsessive.

MR: We were too young to hear a lot of these bands during their artistic peaks, but were getting into them while they were still releasing good, new music.

Green Mind, LP (1991)

MR: So, Green Mind?

NB: It starts off with a bang. “Flying Cloud” aside, this is a ripper for me. I had it on tape first. The first side rips and the second side rumbles.

GB: One thing they do well is start albums. Even though there is a band change, it has some Bug to it still.

MR: Yeah, “The Wagon” is a classic anthem. They do often start their records on the strongest track.

GB: I don’t know if it’s the strongest here, but it is great.

NB: I do not dislike a single song here. Even “Flying Cloud” is okay. “How’d You Pin That One on Me” is awesome!

GB: It makes a strong case. 

MR: I had to cue that one up to remember which one it was. I often find their track names tough to associate with the right song.

GB: I really like “Water.”

MR: “Water” was always one of my favorites. I also really like “Blowing It” and “I Live for that Look,” which are obviously designed to go together.

NB: Yes. Amazing song duo! “Green Mind” was a great closer. I always flipped the tape and started over after it. ALWAYS! I fell asleep to Green Mind when I was 12-13 years old.

MR: I kept missing “Green Mind” (the closing song) in my listens these past couple of weeks. Apparently, my drives lately were all a little shy of forty minutes. Because it’s what I do, I have to point out the nice use of Mellotron on “Thumb.”

GB: There is a pleasant resignation to all the songs. It’s going through the motions, but in a really strong way. Mascis always just sounds so tired and disappointed.

NB: “Green Mind” is about Lou, right?

GB: Has to be. Or a bad girlfriend.

NB: He’s just broken-hearted.

MR: Here’s where I’ll admit that I’ve never paid a ton of attention to Mascis’ lyrics. There are a few exceptions, but I never feel like he’s “saying much,” which is totally fine in this case. I don’t need every songwriter to be Dylan.

GB: Yeah, I don’t think it’s that. I think it’s more that it’s simple and relatable. He’s arguing with himself. Inner monologue stuff. The man writes a good break-up song. You should listen. “Blowing It” is a great example.

MR: I think “resignation” was a good word to use. Mascis was always portrayed as a slacker icon, and it seems like (almost) all of his lyrics are delivered with a shrug of the shoulder. Not a criticism, really. It works for him.

NB: Yep. Listen to “Muck” again. He just had a cool lingo.

MR: I agree about the lingo. There’s a very loose, conversational vibe about his lyrics.

NB: He seems cool as cucumber in The Year Punk Broke (documentary).

GB: He does the thing actors always talk about T Bone Burnett doing – writing for his register and conversational style. He’s not singing as much as musically talking.

NB: Yep. Made it different.

MR: Well, with that voice, he probably doesn’t want to draw too much attention to the words, right?

NB: My dad always said, “this is the band that sounds like the guy is taking a shit.”

GB: To be fair, there are a few that sound like that.

MR: Mostly joking, but I can see how his voice might be a non-starter for some people. Again, it works for him. Bert, I don’t generally intend to reference Rate Your Music too much in these chats, but it seems to come up in the ones that we’ve done together. I notice that you give Green Mind a perfect ‘5’.

NB: Dinosaur Jr was without doubt one of my most important bands as a middle school kid. Only a handful of people were into them. They were like a secret.

GB: Dinosaur Jr kids, Fugazi kids, Dead Kennedys and Misfits kids.

NB: Those were my friends – but, also Sonic Youth, fIREHOSE, and Superchunk.

GB: And all those kids are now smart adults.

MR: Mascis seemed like something of a style icon for my early high school friend group, but I can assure you that several of those guys did not become smart adults.

NB: Don’t think the crew I was with then did either…

MR: I’m pretty sure that I started wearing long-sleeve shirts under short-sleeved ones because I saw Mascis do it first.

NB: Same.

MR: And ski-caps.

NB: Me too… in Florida!

MR: Hmm… I actually still do both of those things. Thanks, J!

NB: Me too, but the weather is more appropriate.

GB: They did a promo photo for a show here in Phoenix last year and he’s wearing a full snow suit. Maybe he’s just cold all the time? Or the AC is on too low…

MR: Last thoughts on Green Mind?

GB: Great album. For an almost-solo effort, it’s really strong for the band.

NB: I love that record. I see few flaws. It was seminal on the indie scene in the moment.

MR: It’s super consistent – partially to its benefit, and partially to its detriment. Rarely less than excellent, but it can sound a little same-ish at times.

GB: Consistent is the right word. Same-ish is Mascis taking over. Standout track? “Water” for me. “Muck” makes a case too.

MR: “The Wagon”

NB: I cannot pick a favorite. The album is a ‘5’ for me.

GB: Five stars – would recommend.

NB: Yep!

Whatever’s Cool With Me, EP (1991)

MR: Alright, Whatever’s Cool With Me. I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I had never heard this EP until preparing for this conversation.

GB: Same, it was new to me.

NB: Bought it brand new! First side knocked me out! Title track, for sure, and “Not You Again.” “Sideways” is a decent moment on the roller coaster too.

GB: “Not You Again” is fantastic.

MR: I became pretty cautious about buying EPs and singles after feeling like I had gotten ripped off a few times. I skipped this one during my discovery phase of Dinosaur Jr, and just never came back to it.

NB: Interesting. I was obsessed with EPs then!

MR: I feel like they usually cost about as much as LPs, and there was just so much that I wanted to buy, that it was rare for an EP to move to the top of my shopping list.

GB: Hard to find sometimes too. Always had to pay import prices for them growing up.

MR: Also true.

NB: I was lucky to be in a huge market (Jacksonville). I had plenty of music shops to choose from in a city of over one million.

GB: We had one indie and three or four chains.

NB: I had multiple stores of various chains and many, many, many indie joints.

MR: Lucky bastard. Flagstaff was a bit different, I guess. As George mentioned, EPs were a little tough to find, and generally not cheap. Our chain shops were always overpriced. The indie one was run – or at least staffed – by guys that I thought were assholes. BMG and Columbia House were something of a lifeline.

NB: Aw, man… I did BMG too. They had some cool shit! I used to get all the free shit under my name and cancel, and then make my mom do it, and then my dad, and then my sister… I got a LOT OF stuff that way!

MR: Yeah, I made several fake accounts. My dog was signed up at least twice. He had terrible credit. The CD clubs were always pretty much major label-only stuff (as I recall), but most of the bands that I liked were on majors at that point anyway. So yeah, the first three songs on here are pretty good. The Bowie cover is fine, I guess. The others seem like “typical EP tracks.”

NB: The second half is just ok. The live songs are interesting.

MR: Yeah, this is a decent EP. At least a couple of keepers.

GB: The first two songs, for sure.

NB: The first three.

MR: Yeah, I’d say the strong tracks are at least three deep. The first three.

Where You Been, LP (1993)

MR: Are we ready for Where You Been?

NB: This album blew me away at first. So professional compared to everything else I knew from them. Again, it’s a tale of two sides. Side two is great. It’s bisected by “Not the Same,” just like “Flying Cloud” on Green Mind. Weird, slow middle bits…

MR: Yeah, he kind of keeps that up. 

NB: I have to say, it pissed me off that this appeared on MTV. I was like, wait, I’ve been here for years! F these guys then!

GB: Yeah, that’s a special pain.

NB: Obviously, I let it go and still love this record! But it is much cleaner than anything before it.

MR: I don’t think I ever saw them on MTV until “Feel the Pain,” but as I mentioned before, a few of these songs definitely made it to the radio stations that I was listening to in the summer of ’93. I think the first two tracks are the strongest.

GB: Have always felt “Start Choppin” should have been the opener.

NB: Nah, man… that opening riff gets it going great!

MR: Hmm. I’ve always really liked “Out There,” and felt like it was well-placed at the start.

GB: But…I’ve had “Out There” stuck in my head all week. It’s been a sort of unofficial anthem for me for all the shit that’s been going on. If you want to do a lyric deep dive, “Out There” is a good place to start. Simple, but deep. In twenty years, I wonder if I’ll have the same music association with “Out There” that I have with 9/11 and “Desolation Row.” You don’t get to pick the song. Sometimes the moment picks it for you.

MR: It’s an evocative song, for sure. I can see why it’s been lingering in your head this week, and it pairs well with the (emotionally) “lighter” “Start Choppin”.

GB: Yes, for certain. Of the two, I’d prefer “Choppin.” Deeper in, “Goin Home” has always been one of my favorites.

NB: “Goin Home” is great.

MR: “Goin Home” was one of those radio tracks [mentioned earlier]. That was definitely one of those “stay close to the radio to tape it” songs.

GB: I think I read something where he said “Goin Home” was about being stood up on a date. He really likes her, but he doesn’t want to give up, but knows he has to for self-respect.

NB: How about the blazing “On the Way”?

GB: Yes!

MR: Yeah, I like that one. This is another really consistent album, which only really hurts it at one point in my mind.

NB: Yes?

MR: Do “Get Me” and “Drawerings” sound way too similar to you guys?

NB: In a bad way? Good songs for me.

GB: Yes – a very legit point. It’s like having the same shirt in two different colors. It’s a great shirt, but c’mon dude.

MR: I particularly like “Get Me,” but “Drawerings” comes in at the same tempo with essentially the same chords – as the very next song.

NB: I agree. “Get Me” is much better. Go back and listen to “Not You Again” and consider trading it for “Drawerings.”

GB: “I Ain’t Sayin” is my standout, I think.

MR: Yeah, I like that track as a closer.

NB: Does it sound a bit like the E.T. song? Seriously. Listen… First fifteen seconds of the Dinosaur Jr song, and about 15 seconds into this…

MR: Hmm, maybe. 

GB: I won’t dismiss the comparison. I can hear it. But maybe that’s because I want to think of Mascis as a super fan.

NB: Either way… great song.

MR: Another really solid album. They played Lollapalooza in support of this album, right?

NB: Yes, with Murph!

MR: So, it seemed like they were kind of primed for a bit of a breakthrough for the follow-up.

Without a Sound, LP (1994)

MR: Without a Sound came out pretty close after Where You Been – a year and a half. This was the first new one to come out after I got into them, so I was definitely paying attention to what seemed like a pretty concentrated push from their label.

NB: “Feel the Pain” is the most radio-friendly song from any of the former indie groups to me. More than “100%” (Sonic Youth) or the like. I hated it at first.

MR: I didn’t have MTV at that particular moment, and I remember resenting my friends who heard “Feel the Pain” before I got to. It came out a bit before the album. I remember worrying that, with the title “Feel the Pain,” it was going to be particularly “hairy.” Like it was some sort of metal-like “threatening” title.

GB: Question: has there ever been a better sound to open an album?

NB: Perhaps not. My kids love it!

MR: So, was “Feel the Pain” a hit? If so, would Dino Jr count as one of many 90s “one hit wonders”?

GB: It had a cool video. It was in heavy rotation at the time, I remember that. It was on Beavis and Butthead as one of the cool videos. They steal golf carts. The guy they beat up in the video looks like George Romney. I really love it.

NB: The album gets better after the opener. I bought it. I thought I hated the popular single, then track two hit me…

MR: I have always really liked “I Don’t Think So” as well.

NB: I dig “Yeah Right” as well.

MR: Yeah, that’s another highlight for me.

GB: Another one with the most solid tracks up front. It was my first Dinosaur Jr album, and I still love it above all others. Got it for $4 used at Hastings and never looked back. We all have those albums that we just put on random when we can’t think of something else. Without a Sound has been that album for me since I bought it.

NB: It has great songs! It’s just plain good!

MR: This album has a pretty weak reputation – even among the band’s fans. I’m surprised to see that all three of us seem to really like it.

NB: I know. Kind of a bummer. There’s good stuff here.

MR: Rate Your Music ratings: Green Mind, 3.51. Where You Been, 3.60. Without a Sound, 3.13. Hand It Over, 3.19. For the record, I think all of their pre-reunion stuff seems a bit underrated on RYM.

GB: I think my relationship to it is nostalgia- and people-based. But I do also think it gets an unfair shake. Having seen them live a few times, these songs always kill.

NB: I also really like “Mind Glow.”

MR: “Mind Glow” is cool. I think I prefer “Outta Hand” as far as the slow ones are concerned, but they’re both good. I like a lot of the slower songs on this album. It seems like there is a bit more nuance to this album than the last couple. It’s as if he’s painting with two (maybe three) colors on Green Mind and Where You Been, and four or five here.

GB: Good analogy.

NB: Yeah, I bet it took a while to figure out how to layer every single instrument on his own!

MR: I think those are both “better” albums, but this one has a lot of replay value for me, largely because of the increased diversity in sound.

GB: Part of why I like it so much. It’s somehow matured. “Seemed Like the Thing to Do” should’ve been the closer. We haven’t touched much on his guitar prowess, but it is a good quiet example.

NB: J Mascis is a mutha-fuggin’ guitar god to me! That’s what grabbed me from the get-go! PS: He’s a decent drummer!

MR: Yeah, he is a good drummer. Most of us guitarists who play drums are usually pretty Neanderthal-like on the latter. Mascis is actually pretty nuanced (to use that word again).

NB: Is there anyone better in our generation?

GB: Good question. Can’t think of one, off hand. Maybe Jonny Greenwood, but a different sound. It’s the sound that’s the thing. You can always tell Mascis, and Curt Kirkwood, and a couple others.

MR: Yeah, he’s a great guitarist. I think there are some whose style I prefer, but Mascis can shred better than any of that era, for sure.

NB: I can’t think of anyone that plays like him.

MR: He really did re-redefine the vocabulary for “alternative” guitarists. 

NB: …or define it.

MR: Learning to play in the mid-90s, virtuosity was generally looked at as lame, but we all made an exception for J. I guess what I mean by “re-redefine,” is that he reclaimed some things that had been kind of off limits for “alternative” guitarists.

GB: “Over Your Shoulder” is another good quiet example.

MR: Have either of you heard about the “Over Your Shoulder” “big in Japan” thing?

GB: Nope.

NB: Nope.

MR: I remember this story from awhile back, but here’s a quick summary from Wikipedia:

The closing song “Over Your Shoulder” was frequently used on the Japanese boxing reality show Gachinko Fight Club. In February 2019, 25 years after the album’s release, “Over Your Shoulder” unexpectedly charted at #18 on the Billboard Japan Hot 100 based on digital streaming. The phenomenon was credited to YouTube postings of clips from Gachinko Fight Club registered as containing the song. For a period, clips from the series — which was a segment of a Japanese variety show — had frequently been favored by YouTube’s algorithmic suggestions in Japan for unknown reasons.

GB: Hmm, nice. Hopefully he made some money and gets to play the Budokan – just like Cheap Trick. If I was starting fresh with Dinosaur Jr, this is still where I’d recommend people start.

NB: I love this era of Dino Jr the most. No wilderness for me, just pure nostalgic love!

MR: I think it could be argued that we’re in something of a wilderness here though. That RYM rating seems to indicate that this is an overlooked record. That’s essentially what I’ve used to define a wilderness. Last thoughts on Without a Sound?

NB: Decent record.

GB: Always will be a favorite.

MR: This is the one that I most looked forward to listening to while prepping for this article. I don’t think it’s the best, but it might be my favorite. Way underrated.

Hand It Over, LP (1997)

MR: Alright, Hand it Over.

NB: Hand It Over was not something I knew in real time.

MR: I bought it new. Definitely liked a few tracks but was disappointed in it overall.

GB: It feels like a letdown to me, a bit.

MR: I like the opener (“I Don’t Think”). Kevin Shields and Bilinda Butcher from My Bloody Valentine are on it. It’s got a bit of their dense sound to it.

NB: …which is why it stands out. I do like “I’m Insane” for some reason.

GB: “I’m Insane” is great!

MR: Yeah, I’ve always liked “I’m Insane” as well.

GB: I have always loved French horns in rock.

MR: Me too, but that’s a trumpet.

GB: Is it? It’s rad either way. It’s always reminded me of “For No One.”

MR: Yep. Sounds like a fake one, but it’s actually real, according to the liners. There does appear to be a Mellotron on “Never Bought It” though, for those keeping score at home. J likes that Mellotron flute sound. Any other standouts?

NB: His guitar blazes on “Can’t We Move This.”

GB: “Gettin’ Rough”

MR: I think the first half of the album is pretty solid. “Alone” really kind of sucks a lot of life out of it.

GB: “Alone” feels like a late album Built to Spill track.

NB: Hmm… really?

MR: Uh-oh, you just awoke the #1 Built to Spill fan.

GB: There’s is a jam/dragness to it that’s always reminded me of their live jam covers – “Cortez the Killer,” for one. We’ll have to revisit on that episode of In the Wilderness.

MR: Either way, there’s a connection via Neil Young.

NB: It is an odd eight minutes for J. That’s typically when Built to Spill is at their best… and yes, Neil Young disciples abound!

GB: Yeah, maybe it’s Neil I’m hearing.

MR: Yeah, “Alone” is J at his most Neil Young. I don’t feel like this album ever really regains any momentum in the second half. George mentioned “Gettin Rough,” which at least sounds different than any other Dino Jr song, but the second half of the album doesn’t do much for me overall.

NB.: I’m okay with that assessment.

GB: Let that be a lesson to anyone looking to put an eight-minute slow jam in the middle of an album. Everyone checks out. “Gettin Rough” may get a benefit from that. On its own, it’s good, but it’s a breath of fresh air here.

MR: Of the four albums covered in this era, this is definitely my least favorite. It sounds kind of tired, and ended up being the last Dinosaur Jr album for a decade.

NB: Right.

GB: Yeah, it kinda dies after “I’m Insane” – for the album and the band.

MR: …but in the words of Neil Young, I think he kind of “faded away” rather than “burning out.”

GB: Not a bad (almost) last hurrah, but on the whole, I can’t recommend the album for casual fans.

NB: Nope.

GB: Spend your $4 on Without a Sound.

MR: Completists will find enough to make it worthwhile, but it’s far from essential.

NB: We’re all completists.

MR: Easier these days than it was when I was buying these albums.

MR: Hand It Over seems to be our consensus “least favorite,” right?

NB: Yes.

GB: Yep.

MR: What is the favorite album?

GB: Two for Green Mind, one for Without a Sound, I’m guessing.

NB: It’s chronological for me – EP aside.

MR: I’m usually really good at picking a favorite and sticking with it, but these are tough ones for me to do that with for some reason. I’ve definitely rated Green Mind and Where You Been higher, but like I said, I found myself enjoying Without a Sound quite a bit in these relistens.

GB: For me, I had the benefit of not being in real time. Think that influenced it.

NB: Without a Sound is an easy third spot. But time and place have a lot to do with it. I definitely dig the record though.

MR: 1994 remains something of a “gold standard” for musical years that I actually lived through, and I think Without a Sound gets some bonus points from that association.

NB: Nostalgia, baby!

MR: Yeah. Fall ’94 is a time that I’ve always had some strong nostalgic connections with. 

MR: Shall we do the draft? I don’t have a question to determine first pick. I’ll give it to Bert, since he was the earliest Dino Jr fan here.

GB: Fair. Plus he had/stole the shirt.

NB: I’ll just take “Green Mind.”

MR: I’m assuming the song. Can’t take the whole album.

GB: “Feel the Pain”

MR: I’ll take “I Don’t Think So.” Round two:

NB: “Not You Again”

GB: “Start Choppin”

MR: “Water.” Round three:

NB: “How’d You Pin That One on Me”

GB: “Goin Home”

MR: “The Wagon.” Round four:

NB: “Get Me”

GB: “I’m Insane”

MR: “Out There.” Last round:

NB: “Puke + Cry”

GB: “Seemed Like the Thing to Do”

MR: “Yeah Right.” Alright, good picks.

NB: “Mind Glow” as a bonus track?

GB: I’d allow it.

MR: Nope. If you wanted it, you should’ve picked it. I’ll let you sub one of yours out.

NB: I’m good.

GB: I think this list is good.

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