Today’s twentysomethings didn’t grow up on the Beatles and the Stones. They grew up on Kiss, Peter Frampton and Neil Young. Making something meaningful out of these mostly baser metals calls for a bit of musical alchemy. Which is where Dinosaur Jr comes in.
On their second major-label album, these college-underground champs recall the shambling lope of Crazy Horse-era Young, as well as hints of minor Seventies icons from Blue Oyster Cult to Humble Pie. The majestic “Get Me” is “Layla” for the distressed-denim set (even the guitar squiggle at the end is pinched from Clapton’s “Let It Rain”). The album’s working title, So What Else Is New, seems less a question than an acknowledgment of rock’s perpetually inbred nature. Even the band’s name speaks of classic-rock lineage.
But far from being derivative, leader J Mascis takes a familiar deck of cards and deals out a new game. While for Young guitar clamor signaled rage and desperation, for Mascis it’s retreat. Before a roiling torrent of distorted guitars and oceanic drum bash, Mascis sings in a laid-back croak, like a character talking calmly to the camera in the midst of a riotous crowd scene. The turmoil on Where You Been is a relationship crippled by misunderstanding, detailed in a poignant second-person narrative that consumes virtually every song on the album.
Dinosaur Jr is Mascis’s band; he plays the extended but always dramatic guitar solos, and he writes the excellent songs — such as the riff-happy “Start Choppin” and “I Ain’t Sayin,” the two-minute gem that closes the album. As producer, he embellishes the band’s usual all-guitar palette with timpani, chimes and strings — a daring move in the sadly conformist world of alternative rock.
Like many of its peers, Dinosaur Jr is a musical cargo cult, turning the detritus of another culture into something that can be used — and maybe even worshiped. For one of the crowning glories of slacker culture, look no further.