Widely credited as influential catalysts during the grunge goldrush, Dinosaur Jr. took
an embryonic Nirvana out on tour before riding the corporate alt.rock wave of the
90s. But listening back to this box set of expanded albums spanning the trio’s major-label peak confirms founder and frontman J Mascis as a far more unorthodox avant-punk noise-metal innovator than his comically lethargic slacker-stoner lumberjack image suggests.
Mascis memorably called the Dinosaur sound “ear-bleeding country”, and there are nods to vintage heartland Americana scattered across these four albums. But at full steam they more often sound like an obliterating love-hate assault on classicrock norms, like My Bloody Valentine fronted by Eddie Van Halen in all his maximalist majesty. Adding extra spine-tingling texture is Mascis’s voice: a grainy, pained, whimpering croak somewhere between Neil Young and Kurt Cobain.
Initially intending to retire the Dinosaur name when their early indie-label line-up disbanded, Mascis conceived 1991’s Green Mind as a solo album. He ultimately elected to revive the band with new members, but still plays most of the instruments himself on lurching, clattering, exhilarating sludge-metal ear-blasters like The Wagon and Thumb. More exotic material lurks in the bonus tracks, including the bizarre spoken-word grunge-punk oddity The Little Baby and an ambitiously weird experimental mash-up of The Wagon with David Bowie’s Quicksand.
The pinnacle of this collection – and still a critical and commercial career peak decades later – is Where You Been, from 1993. With Mascis adding organ, strings, timpani and booming big-band arrangements to his core guitar-shredding aesthetic, this widescreen opus features left-field hit singles like the unusually sharp-sounding, hook-heavy Start Choppin’, alongside huge, crashing, soaring anthems like What Else Is New.
Stand-out bonus tracks include alt.county heartjangler Keeblin’ and a messy but agreeably rowdy collaboration with rapper Del Tha Funky Homosapien on Missing Link.
Recorded while Mascis was grieving his father’s death, Without A Sound is the sole middling record here, a sporadically great but uneven release from 1994, padded out on this reissue with instrumental filler. Three years would pass before Hand It Over called time on Dinosaur’s first chapter, with gorgeous pastoral folk-grunge ballads like Gettin’ Rough, the finger-picking weepie Don’t You Think It’s Time and the incongruously cheery Beach Boys-ish toe tapper Take A Run At The Sun. A long sabbatical and fruitful ongoing reunion followed, but the band’s greatest work is contained here.