Dinosaur Jr. just OK together, but on the stage, they’re great

Two decades ago, the original lineup of Dinosaur Jr. was, by all accounts, extinct.

Two decades ago

TORONTO — Two decades ago, the original lineup of Dinosaur Jr. was, by all accounts, extinct.

It was 1989 when the years of hostility and tumult in the band came to a head, and frontman J Mascis unceremoniously ousted bassist Lou Barlow. An era of nastiness followed, as the malevolence between the two men manifested itself in song, in the media, in a lawsuit.

If their reunion in 2005 was unlikely, the high quality of the work that followed was downright inconceivable. Even as they bask in the glow of the critically acclaimed Farm, the indie rock trailblazers admit that relations within the band are still not totally harmonious.

“It’s all right,” Mascis said slowly in his laconic drawl during a telephone interview from his home in Massachusetts.

“You know, it’s still not — we’re not best friends or anything — but it’s going all right.”

Indeed, Farm came out last month to widespread praise and the band is on tour through November, with dates scheduled in Toronto, Montreal, Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Calgary, Edmonton, Victoria and Vancouver.

Yet even Mascis’s measured estimation of the positive place the band is in now stands as great progress.

Dinosaur Jr. formed in 1984 in Amherst, Mass. After issuing their self-titled debut in 1985, the trio — rounded out by drummer Murph — made waves with 1987’s You’re Living All Over Me, a seminal rock record that juxtaposed sighing lyrics about alienation and resignation with Mascis’s explosive guitar heroics.

The band combined the song structures and epic solos of classic rock, the guitar aggression of metal and frustrated angst of college rock with a helping of towering feedback, a novel mix that earned raves on both sides of the Atlantic.

The band’s profile was building, its star rising. Naturally, they were miserable.

“We never had much fun when we were first together,” Mascis said. “We just felt compelled to be in a band because we were into music and wanted to make music, but it definitely wasn’t fun or anything.”

The band followed with Bug in 1988, another record that received effusive reviews.

But the conditions within the band worsened. Barlow says he was insecure and constantly seeking Mascis’s approval, while the stoic Mascis concedes he was uncommunicative and distant.

They bickered, they intentionally agitated each other and they fought relentlessly. One ’88 gig in Connecticut, chronicled in Michael Azerrad’s book Our Band Could Be Your Life, finished early when Mascis and Barlow began swinging their instruments at each other.

After Barlow was dumped from the group in ’89, he found his own voice with Sebadoh, a beloved lo-fi institution that grew from Barlow’s home recordings.

But even while finding success on his own, Barlow couldn’t get over what happened in Dinosaur. He wrote countless songs about Mascis, including 1991’s The Freed Pig.

“Now you will be free/With no sick people tugging on your sleeve/ Your big head has that more room to grow/ A glory I will never know,” Barlow sang.

“Back then, I was really just struggling to find my own voice and be confident,” Barlow said when reached at his home in New York. “When the band started, J was so powerful. He was just writing these incredible songs, incredible lyrics, and I … was just kind of like following meekly in his footsteps.”

Yet somewhere along the way, relations between the two thawed.

Mascis continued on with the Dinosaur Jr. name into the ’90s, sometimes playing all the instruments himself. He scored radio hits with Start Choppin’ in 1993 and Feel the Pain the following year before retiring the Dinosaur name in ’97.

Along the way, Mascis began attending some Sebadoh shows, and he and Barlow even joined each other onstage at a few concerts beginning in 2002.

In 2007, the original lineup of Dinosaur Jr. reunited for Beyond — their first album altogether since 1988 — and followed this year with Farm, an even-tighter collection of tunes that sounds precisely like it could have excised from their most fertile period in the late ’80s.

The music is still awash in melodic feedback, and Mascis’s spiralling solos still provide a counterpoint to his mopey vocals. That the record still sounds so fresh could be a testament to how unique the group has always been.

“We’re the power trio from the ’80s, I guess there’s not that many,” Barlow said. “We’re in this tradition of heavy rock bands, and just sticking to the crazy leads and growing our hair out. We somehow manage to stick with that, just that real simple thing of three guys playing heavy rock.

“I guess that’s kind of rare, if you look back on it.”

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