May 8, 2007

Shortcut—Dinosaur Jr.'s Beyond

Back in 1987, lead guitar was a touchy subject in the American underground. Previously, most skilled punk guitarists played well in spite of their bands’ overall attitude. J Mascis of Dinosaur Jr. played well because of it. After hardcore had exhausted the loud/fast mantra, Mascis infused Neil Young–style hard rock into the D.I.Y. aesthetic. While punks should have hated this, it was hard for your jaw not to drop when Mascis picked up a guitar. Four years later, Pearl Jam and Nirvana would take over the airwaves with a similar combination of big guitars and punk aesthetics.

Mascis for the most part missed out on grunge’s fame due to his antisocial behavior, which irked no one more than Dinosaur bassist Lou Barlow. Barlow was always second fiddle to Mascis, and when he left the band in 1989, it seemed impossible the two would ever get back together. But as Barlow became a low-fi icon with Sebadoh, Mascis learned to deal with people better, and 18 years later, we get Beyond, a reunion album that sounds like the band never split.

Some have criticized Beyond for being a safe album, but that’s actually the album’s strength. With Beyond, a band that never fully exhausted its creative juices gets a chance to bring a much-needed burst of guitar rock back to prominence. Furthermore, the band sounds as cohesive as they ever sounded. It’s still the J Mascis show, but even on their best albums, Mascis seemed to need an excuse to solo against Barlow’s jerky post-punk bass and Murph’s unreliable drumming. Now, with Barlow’s reputation established, he seems consigned to standard rock bass and lets Mascis take over. For good measure, Barlow has a couple of his own songs here. While “Back to Your Heart” and “Lightning Bulb” are less traditional and not as strong, they help breathe a bit of creativity into the album.

Beyond cements Mascis’s status as one of the most visionary guitarists of the past quarter-century, and he has done one of his best jobs yet of throwing some excellent songs and lyrics around his always masterful soloing. It’s easy to imagine tracks like “Almost Ready” and “Been There All the Time” getting significant airtime in the early ’90s. While Mascis may have never capitalized on his fame, he has released one of his best albums at another time when the role of lead guitar is under question. True, a legion of laptop-brandishing geeks will respond differently to a 41-year-old Mascis than a legion of hardcore kids did to a 21-year-old Mascis. But while Dinosaur Jr. may not have the same impact they did in their youth, it’s still refreshing to see one of indie rock’s best show the young kids how it’s done.