Dinosaur Jr., Green Mind (Blanco Y Negro / Sire, 1991)
1991—what a year for music!
You can probably play this game with literally any year, but 1991 has something to it--Nevermind, Ten, Loveless, Out of Time, Achtung Baby, Blood Sugar Sex Magik, Badmotorfinger, Screamadelica, Bandwagonesque, Spiderland, Gish, Blue Lines, Trompe le Monde, The Low End Theory, De La Soul is Dead, Steady Diet of Nothing, The Orb’s Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld…and so on.
It is literally unthinkable in 2017 that this many iconic albums could come out in one year; maybe everything is iconic in hindsight.
1991 was also “the year that punk broke,” as the famous documentary is aptly titled. If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to live, however briefly, in a world where Sonic Youth is the biggest thing around, watch the documentary and experience a hundred minutes of bliss.
Dinosaur Jr. is also featured prominently in The Year Punk Broke, yet by most accounts 1991 was not the happiest time in the band’s career. In brief: they released their classic “trilogy” between 1985 and 1989—their debut Dinosaur, their "emo" masterpiece You’re Living All Over Me, and their harrowing breakup album Bug. Lou Barlow had been fired, was well into his own band, Sebadoh, and even drummer Murph was growing weary of it all.
All of this left Dinosaur Jr.’s frontman, songwriter and guitar whiz J. Mascis, somewhat alone.
After being on SST, the legendary label founded by Black Flag’s Greg Ginn, Dinosaur Jr. had migrated to Blanco Y Negro, which stood in some relation to Sire Records, originally Seymour Stein’s label (yes, the Seymour Stein Belle & Sebastian sing about) that was later acquired by Warner Brothers, making Dinosaur Jr. technically a major label act.
Mascis had to face this situation more or less alone (how much of this was his fault is another story). The result is Green Mind, an album written, produced, and almost entirely performed by Mascis (Murph plays drums on three of ten tracks, and a few others help out on other songs). This is, for all intents and purposes, a J. Mascis solo album.
The opener, “The Wagon,” is an alternative-rock classic. (“There’s a way I feel right now/won’t you help me, don’t know how”) that was recorded with members of the band Gumball (another feature of the aforementioned documentary). It is a perfect song—whiny and poppy, and the chorus (the Beatles-echoing “you won’t see”) is sung in falsetto. It explodes out the gates, as if to say, “ok, let’s get it over with—here’s the hit, now onto the rest of the album.”
That said, the whole album showcases one of Mascis’s most underrated characteristics—dude knows how to write a really, really catchy song, even when it’s entitled “Puke and Cry" (though arguably this album doesn't quite have the hooks that even hardest songs on You're Living All Over Me have).
Mascis is also a master of transition, both within a song and from one song to the next. It’s always seemed funny to me how Grateful Dead fans refer to certain song pairings because of the group’s tendency to segue from one to the other (like, I don’t know, “China Cat Sunflower” >> “I Know You Rider”…it’s the arrows that make me laugh). This is just to say that Dino has a total Dead moment on this album with, let’s see, “Blowing It” >> “I Live for that Look.”
“Blowing It” is typical Mascis rhythmic misanthropy (syncopated sadness, you might say) and it stretches to its limits until the three-minute mark, at which point, in perfect synchrony, the guitar revs Boeingly into “I Live for That Look,” which sounds like Big Star on Ritalin.
After such an early crescendo, the album calms down a bit. The mesmerizing “Flying Cloud” follows, a Neil Young-inspired number that would not sound out of place on 1974’s On the Beach. It is very cinematic, like if Neil Young did the soundtrack for Zabriskie Point.
The album goes back to “The Wagon” territory briefly with “How’d You Pin That One on Me,” which is fun in a thrashy kind of way, but is far from the best song on the album.
“Water,” on the other hand—what a song. Again, you can totally hear Zuma-era Neil Young performing this song. It is truly gorgeous. Most people will say that Mascis is a terrible singer and, like, whatever—arguing with people about who does or does not sing well is pointless. But I don’t know many singers who can whinily whisper-sing things like “I saw you down across the water” and actually give me chills (again, remember Neil Young—"he came dancing across the water...").
Mascis also has an uncanny ability to sing throwaway lines like “come on, baby” and “this is crazy” in a way that somehow sound utterly sincere. There is a kind of perennial adolescence with him that ensures a heart-on-its-sleeve candor to Dinosaur Jr.’s music, but precisely the kind of candor an adolescent has, vested in its own peculiar awkwardness and self-distancing.
Mascis also does the Lennon/Cobain/Elliott Smith double-tracked vocals thing, but he provides his own falsetto harmonies, which add a further element that is both genuinely touching and also mildly embarrassing in its lack of irony.
Further weird things happen from there. “Muck” has a kind of white-guy funkiness to it that is too 90s for words, but also (somehow) really good—honestly, it’s one of my favorite songs on the album. “Thumb” has synthesized flutes and shows off Mascis’s love of The Cure. Finally, the closer, “Green Mind,” is an epic tour of Mascisian psychology, a kind of manifesto for people whose cool ripple of exteriority conceals a rolling boil beneath.
The title of the album, Green Mind, suggests many things, among which money, marijuana, and immaturity, all of which almost surely played a part in its making. It is not as obviously revolutionary as You're Living All Over Me, nor is it quite as emotionally draining as Bug, but it is a strange, swampy album that draws from the various genres Mascis is fascinated by—folk, country, rock, pop, punk, hardcore, and goth—without sounding like any of those things. It also has a "major-label lo-fi" production value that is refreshing in comparison to the homogeneity of so much of today's sounds.
Ultimately, it is a beautiful downer of an album. "There never really is a good time," Mascis sings on "Thumb," one of his many paeans to emotional inarticulateness. Though now they sit comfortably in the "elder statesmen" category, releasing perfectly crafted albums every few years with the original lineup of Mascis, Murph, and Barlow, Dinosaur Jr. doesn't quite have the anger it used to have.
Mascis, in particular, seems to have calmed down. On Green Mind, however, you can still hear the sound of venting, moaning, and fuming—the sound of someone who could throw themselves a great party if they only had someone to invite.