Monday, September 29, 2008

Dinosaur Jr. Green Mind (Sire, 1991/ Reissue 2006)

"There's a place I'd like to go/ When you get there then I'll know/ There's a place I know you've been/ Here's a wagon, get on in."

In his liner notes for the reissue of Where You Been, Dinosaur Jr.'s 1993 follow-up to the epic Green Mind, rock critic/journalist Byron Coley observes, "The rule seems to be that whichever [Dinosaur Jr.] album a particular fan heard first is his/her favorite." Pretty good observation, and one that certainly applies to me. As a freshman in high school, a friend's band did a cover of Green Mind's title track, and I though it was awesome. Consequently, having never heard Dinosaur Jr. before, Green Mind was the first of their albums I bought, and I wore it out. And having listened to a lot of Dinosaur Jr. in the years between then and now, to include the "classic" pre-'91 albums with Lou Barlow on bass, I still consider it the band's best record, and certainly my favorite.

As any indie rock nerd worth his salt will tell you, to claim Green Mind as your favorite Dinosaur Jr. record is tantamount to blasphemy in some circles. This was the first album after Lou Barlow's unceremonious booting from the band, and the album that basically saw Dinosaur Jr. complete its transformation into the J Mascis Show. Pre-Green Mind, Dinosaur Jr. was far more impressionistic and experimental, with Mascis's '70s-era guitar workouts crowding for space among hardcore noise blasts and Barlow's more subdued folk explorations on albums like You're Living All Over Me and Bug. Pre-'91, the band was essentially two bands, with Mascis and Barlow each moving in decidedly different directions. That tension produced some amazing material, but eventually was too much for the group to bear. So Mascis fired Barlow, who went on to form Sebadoh and its many offshoots, and began to perfect his own Neil Young/Foghat/Frampton-cum-Black Flag idolization. And that's where Green Mind comes in.

Green Mind was Dinosaur Jr.'s first major-label album, having moved to Sire from the esteemed indie SST, where they'd been since 1987. It's worth noting that the year of its release, 1991, was a seminal year for '80s-era indie rock, "The Year Punk Broke," to borrow the title of the Sonic Youth tour film in which Dinosaur Jr. feature prominently. Sonic Youth had released Goo on Geffen in summer 1990, and Geffen would release Nirvana's Nevermind in September 1991. Along with those records, Green Mind (released February 1991) hammered some nails into the coffin of hair metal and bland corporate rock, and helped to define the cool-kids' aesthetic for much of the coming decade. For many, J Mascis's mopey, blurry, mumblecore shamble punctuated by moments of sheer rock-god brilliance would define the style of the '90s: yeah, this is great, but whatever, man, I don't know. Who cares?

And make no mistake, Green Mind is brilliant. Mascis wrote all of the songs, and played almost all of the instruments (with some help from Dinosaur Jr. stalwart Murph on occasional drums and Don Fleming on bass and guitar here and there). Gone are the distractions/abstractions of the Barlow days: Mascis is free to let the guitar heroics and fiercely melodic riff-fests fly. These songs are polished, focused, and tight, informed as much by classic AOR wankery as by punk and hardcore aggression. The end result is an almost impossibly listenable record, each instrument crisply recorded and mixed for maximum punch.

This being a Dinosaur Jr. record, the guitar sounds great (Fender Jazzmasters and Jaguars played through Marshall stacks, big, thick slabs of distortion, overdriven tones and crazy sustain), but the drums are the secret weapon. Murph plays drums on three tracks, and Mascis handles the rest. Mascis started out as a drummer, and has effing incredible chops (it's also, I think, why his guitar style is so rhythmically informed). He plays really hard and really loud, but has a highly developed sense of timing and phrasing, which means that oftentimes the beats fail to land where you'd think they should, but always land in the right place. It's badass, and keeps the listener guessing in the best of ways.

Oh, right: the songs. Well, there's not a bad one on here, to be perfectly honest. Album opener "The Wagon" is a Dinosaur Jr. classic and concert staple, and rightly so. Flanged guitar kicks in right away, the drums drive the song in all the right directions, and Mascis turns in some fundamental face-melting. "Ring the doorbell in your mind/ But it's locked from the outside/ You don't live there anyway/ But I knock on it all day" whines Mascis in pitch-perfect slacker tones as everything just wails behind him. "Puke + Cry" mixes acoustic strums and a plodding beat with spry electric rhythm guitar. "Blowing It" segues seamlessly into "I Live For That Look," soaring leads piercing the jaunty jangle of the main melody. "How'd You Pin That One on Me" is the most hardcore track here, thrash and burn and thrash again, Mascis wailing, "How'd you pin that one me?/ I haven't even done it yet!" before sickly murmuring, "Get me a bucket." "Water" could be Green Mind's prettiest song, a delicate tune covered in underwater reverb and some of Mascis's most vulnerable lyrics. "Thumb," with its plaintive recorder line, is a heartbreaker, as well. And the album-closing title track, obviously, is a gem, a straight rocker with searing solos and era-defining lyrics like "
If I keep stewin’ ’bout how I feel/ Eventually you'll split, then I won’t have to deal/ Sounds like a plan."

The 2006 reissue of Green Mind (which you should get, 'cuz it's been remastered and is bargain priced at around $10) adds three bonus tracks, one of which is a devastating cover of the Flying Burrito Brothers' ""Hot Burrito #2." Well worth a listen, as Mascis' interpretation of the Burritos' spaced-out country fits just right. The other two are pretty standard-issue Dinosaur Jr. tunes, which is to say, they rock pretty hard but don't leave much of an impression.

Some of my favorite memories of high school involve driving around in my first car (an '84 Subaru hatchback, maroon) blasting my worn, clear plastic tape of Green Mind. Back then, these guys seemed like everything that was great about guitars. And listening to it today, I still feel that way. This is guitar rock in one of its best, most thrilling, inspiring incarnations, noise and hooks for the sake of noise and hooks, distortion as an end and a means. And loud, too.