Dinosaur Jr. strain the ears in more ways than one at the Commodore Ballroom

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Two words that immediately spring to mind when thinking about Dinosaur Jr. are “guitar” and “LOUD.” Unsurprisingly, their show at the Commodore Ballroom last Friday was filled with speeding riffs that veered into searing solos, all drenched in feedback from stacks of amps that surrounded guitarist and primary vocalist J. Mascis.

The Amherst, MA trio, which also includes bassist/vocalist Lou Barlow and drummer Murph, released their latest album Give a Glimpse of What Yer Not last August. The album features some of their most direct work to date, and new cuts like head-on knee-scrapers “Goin Down” and “Tiny” proved their worth by sending fans into stage-diving, crowd-surfing raves.

Dinosaur Jr. had plenty of melodic moments too, but those songs always took hard turns. “Feel the Pain” began with note-picked guitar before accelerating into six-stringed solos and crashing in an abrupt end. “Knocked Around”, another song from Glimpse, also followed this slow-to-start trajectory; its spacious and weepy opening passage did an about-face, giving way to a climax powered by Murph’s rumbling drums.

The band balanced these relatively easy-to-digest songs with swampy numbers including “I Walk for Miles” and “Watch the Corners” which trudged at much sludgier paces.

Lyrics have never been one of Dinosaur Jr.’s great appeals. Not that they’re off-putting, but even Mascis’s voice has been more significant to band’s influential sound, a nasally drawl spread over mind-melting, often cyclical guitar work and distorted pop psychedelia. It still would have been nice to have been able to make out what he and Barlow were singing though. Barlow fared slightly better than Mascis in that regard, but one still needed to strain to discern Barlow’s words.

Dinosaur Jr. stomped off for the night after a three-song encore that included “Tarpit” and the Cure cover “Just Like Heaven”. Not that either song is tempered by any conventional standards, but they were certainly mild compared to the band’s blistering, lung-blowing final song, a cover of Last Rights’ “Chunks”, with Barlow leading the charge on vocals.  

Give a Glimpse showcases Barlow’s most significant songwriting contributions to the band yet – not in the number of songs he wrote but the craft behind them. Considering that J. Mascis’s former domination of the songwriting process was one factor that drove Barlow out of the band in 1988, it’s still, 11 years after the original lineup reunited, reassuring to hear Barlow close the show. As he screamed his guts out, I couldn’t help but think of his line in “License to Confuse”, by his own band Sebadoh: “Hear my voice strain as I sing.”

Creatively and performance wise, Dinosaur Jr. today are their most democratic yet. We hear you, Lou, but you can say it a little more loudly and a little more clearly.

Leslie Ken Chu

Leslie Ken Chu

Contributor