Sharps and Flats: Dinosaur Jr.

Published April 28, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

Let's do one of those swirly flashback things like they have in the movies and take ourselves back to the old high school days. That's it -- just like that. And here it is again, just as we remember it: missing early morning biology class and skipping gym; smoking bowls behind the 7-Eleven during lunch ... going to a party and then staggering onto your parents' lawn at, like, 2 in the morning on a school night and hurling in the bushes 'cause you drank the bong water ... Oh, wait, sorry. Those are Joe Mascis' high school days, back in Amherst, Mass.

Everybody knows guys like Joe. We used to call them "burnouts." After high school, Joe spent a year at the state U., right at the edge of town, and then got poured out like warm beer -- landing right back at his parents' house, where he was to remain for the next 10 years. Burnout stories usually end right there, with the pouring-out and landing-back, and the last we tend to see of guys like Joe is when we go home for Thanksgiving one year and find them pumping gas at the corner Citgo -- still all red-eyed and vacant; still talking about getting the old high school band back together.

But Joe Mascis, the Greatest Living Burnout, still has the old high school band together, more or less (the thrash-punk Deep Wound was essentially the early Dinosaur Jr. with the instruments switched around). And J. Mascis -- the Unlikeliest Major Rock Star -- has not only parlayed his genuinely epic slackness into an oeuvre of remarkable consistency, he's done something that very few even fully conscious, reasonably self-actualized artists seem to be able to do these days: He's made a career-topping thesis statement of an album. "Hand It Over" manages to retain everything that was ever good about Dinosaur Jr. while ditching almost everything that was ever problematic about them. Almost everything.

Mascis' guitar chops have been improving in fits and starts since the band's first release in '85, but lately his style has really taken off. Ace solos like the ones in "Loaded" and "Can't We Move This" show him carving out his own space in the canon -- somewhere directly between Neil Young and the Stooges' James Williamson, but beholden to neither. And after his patchy rendition of the Smiths' "The Boy With The Thorn In His Side" on last year's solo acoustic "Martin and Me," the current album's "I Know You're Insane," has him doing a dead-on Johnny Marr -- which is no easy feat at all.

His songwriting is also at its peak, and "Hand It Over" has some of the most diverse instrumentation of the band's career. Mascis plays all the drum tracks again, naturally; and there are also bits of Augustus Pablo-style dub melodeon (on "I Don't Think"), electric sitar, banjo (on the Afropop-sounding "Getting Rough") and sampled horns and strings winding through the mix. But as well-conceived as the album is, and as much as it shows off Mascis' gathering strength as a composer and arranger, it also puts a frame around his greatest weakness.

The trouble with burnouts is that they just don't
ever really grow up -- they just get more and
more mannish as they get older. Mascis' trademark
laconic moan and much of his rhythm playing show
that while his expressive range might've
deepened, it's hardly matured at all over the past
dozen-odd years. Previous Dinosaur Jr. releases
suggested Mascis as a middling talent working at
the peak of his ability. "Hand it Over" suggests
that he's a great talent -- but one stuck scaling
the foothills.

By Gavin McNett

Gavin McNett is a frequent contributor to Salon.

MORE FROM Gavin McNett

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