Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Music Library: Dinosaur Jr. and Akron/Family

Dinosaur Jr.:

I found myself standing next to J Mascis at a Consonant show at SXSW 2004. Although drunk and close to utter exhaustion, I thought it would be a good idea to strike up a conversation. So I told him how much his albums had meant to me through my life, especially You're Living All Over Me. I babbled for a while, and then realized that I was babbling, so I said something like, "Oh shit, you have a reputation as a guy who doesn't suffer fools gladly, and here I'm jabbering like a goddamn fool, so, uh, I guess I'll shut up and stop bothering you." Through all of this Mascis just looked at me without changing expression. Finally, he said, "Where are you from?" I said that I'd grown up in Mobile, AL, which didn't have much of a punk scene when I was a teenager, but I live in Austin now. He just nodded, as if I'd told him something important that somehow helped him understand and move on, and he said basically, "ok, bye now." Then he wandered off to go talk with Clint Conley. I tell this story not because I think it explains anything, but mainly because my friends think it's hilarious that when I get drunk and stumble onto a celebrity, I have an uncanny ability to tell them something they already know, which is specifically their own name. "Hey, you're Eugene Mirman" I will say in a a typical example of my stirling conversational skills. In this case, I tried to break the mold, but with exactly the wrong guy. I know now that Mascis was trying to be a more spiritual and connected person at the time, which may be why he waited until I finished babbling to wander off, but man, I'm the worst at talking to people who have made art that I care about, which is why I'm a terrible interviewer. I should have learned my lesson by now.

  • Dinosaur. The first Dino Jr album is a little undercooked, although still charming. It reminds me a bit of the first Meat Puppets album, although it's infinitely more competently made. Still, they share a sense of struggle to pull their visions out of the hardcore scene and recast them into something new. J. Mascis apparently told Lou Barlow that his aim was "ear-splitting country," and that was definitely the road he was on.

  • You're Living All Over Me. It don't get much better than this. Mascis has taken the reins and is turning out the blueprints for all indie rock to follow: loud-quiet-loud dynamics, throwing out the verse-chorus structure when he needs to, deeply personal lyrics delivered impassionately over howling, insistent, breathlessly compelling music. And Mascis was all of 21 when he made it, the talented bastard.

  • Bug. Opening with the sublime "Freak Scene," Bug rocks like a crazy person coming apart at the seams. Everything I just said about You're Living All Over Me is true of Bug, as well, although maybe a little bit less so. Just a little. If at all. In fact, the heck with it, if You're Living All Over Me is a five star album, Bug is a four-and-99/100 star album.

  • Green Mind. Then J had Murph fire Lou. And Dinosaur Jr signed to a major label. And J barely even let Murph play on the next album. But it was still good. Different, but good: slicker, a little less dynamic. J was trying to figure out how to make his ideas go over to a bigger audience, and he was pretty successful at that.

  • Where You Been. The best of the major-label albums, this one has Murph on all the tracks, new bassist Mike Johnson on all the tracks, and J sounds like he's having a lot of fun. The songs are pretty great throughout, catchy and on fire.

  • Without A Sound. Then there was one. J fired Murph and made this one all by himself. The first track, "Feel The Pain," is one of Dinosaur Jr.'s finest moments. Everything else, not so much. Most of the songs slide by and I can't remember them seconds later. In indie rock, being dull is worse than being lousy. This is dull and lousy.

  • Hand It Over. This one is a contract-fulfillment album. The songs are actually songs, though, and J seems ready to go out with a bang. He retired the Dinosaur Jr. name afterwards, and seemed ready to move on with his life. That was 1997.

  • Beyond. But, perhaps inspired by a chance encounter with an aging fan at SXSW 2004, the original trio of Dinosaur Jr. unexpected decided to reform in 2007 and start producing music again. And, lo and behold, it was freaking great, which, when you consider the ten years since the previous Dino Jr album and the nineteen years since this trio had played together, is nothing short of miraculous. But I'll say this: Beyond is awesome, as good as the band was in their prime, and I won't say that lightly, couldn't possibly say that lightly. And, good lord, is "Been There All the Time" a killer track. I held off on buying this for a few months, because I couldn't believe that they could actually be making good music again, but they are, and wow, god bless 'em for it.

  • Farm. And the good music continues, history be damned. This album just dropped last week, so I've only listened to it through maybe four times, but old times are new again. Highly recommended.



Akron/Family - Set 'Em Wild, Set 'Em Free. It's not as immediately gripping as 2007's Love Is Simple, but the 2009 Akron/Family album is a first-rate example of what happens when the hippies get weird. I mean, make no mistake, this is hippie music in large part, but consider this: even the Grateful Dead were interested in the avant-garde. Their music wasn't necessarily avant-garde; in fact, it was often (although not always) dull jamming over two chords. But they liked the idea of incorporating the avant-garde into their music with the idea that the avant-garde made their music more heady and fun. Akron/Family gets that in spades, and these hippies are continuing their process of making avant-garde hippie music for the intellectually curious masses. They also put on a monster live show, so go see them do their thing in person.


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