While delving into the expansive terrain of alternative rock, we at Melophobe are again reminded of another album catching our retrospective gaze – Where You Been by none other than Dinosaur Jr. In terms of influence on 90’s alternative rock, aside from R.E.M., Sonic Youth and Pixies, it’s a challenge to find a more monumentally influential band. This album, a cornerstone of the genre, beckons us to explore its sonic landscape and bear witness to the evolution of a trio that has carved an indelible niche within the alternative and indie rock pantheon.
Following their already emerged underground success following 1987’s You’re Living All Over Me (hence the massive influential impact on 90’s alternative), the group had found their niche and it was expanding quickly with groups like Pavement and Sebadoh now on the scene by this release in 1993. Emerging from the ever-shifting tides of the early 90s, the record unfurls a tapestry of melodic riffs and cathartic anthems that simply capture the very essence of the era. Sitting somewhere near the noise rock and grunge pathways of Nirvana, Pearl Jam or My Bloody Valentine, and the dynamically more diverse side of Pixies and Flaming Lips, Dinosaur Jr. towed the line perfectly. The band crafted an appeal catching interest from the Pavement fans, the Nirvana fans, and the R.E.M. fans, all turning their heads towards this record which we, alongside a plethora of journalists, consider one of the best album of the early 90's. Anchored by the formidable presence of J Mascis, Dinosaur Jr.'s virtuosic frontman, the album takes flight with electrifying energy that resonates with both the die-hard fans and the uninitiated listeners more akin to other realms of the rock space.
From the first track, Out There, listeners are immediately engulfed in a whirlwind of sound – a signature concoction of distortion-laden guitars and impassioned vocals that defines the Dinosaur Jr. experience, still noticeably different from the grunge guys. Mascis' distinctive guitar work reverberates throughout the album, an embodiment of controlled chaos that exudes an almost paradoxical sense of tranquility amidst the storm. It's as if Mascis wields his guitar as an extension of himself, weaving intricate tales of longing, introspection and raw emotion.
The standout and most repeated track, Start Choppin, exhibits Dinosaur Jr.'s ability to craft an earworm that transcends time, in a similar vein as some of the alt-rockers who may have received more airplay. The track's infectious melody, coupled with Mascis' evocative delivery, etches itself into the listener's psyche, an emblem of the era's alt-rock zenith. The high-pitched wailing going into the chorus, alongside the higher pitched singing of the chorus itself distinctly separates the song from the more grunge-laden style of the song, aligning the song more akin to what Pavement was doing at the time than say Nirvana. In sheer brilliance though, that’s exactly what expands the songs appeal to both sides of the alternative rock coin.
Get Me continues the sonic journey with its blend of brooding introspection and explosive crescendos. Mascis' vocals traverse the emotional spectrum, drawing us into a realm, almost psychedelic, where vulnerability and defiance coexist harmoniously leading up to one of the more “forgotten” tracks on the record, Drawerings. Even though the track may get less streams than the others, the guitar still sings like a bird, in a way that would turn Duane Allman or Jimmy Page’s head, as it equally does on Get Me.
The hidden gem towards the tail end of the record though has got to be Goin’ Home. The trio juxtaposed the Mascis trademark mellow vocals with a guitar-driven crescendo that resonates with a bittersweet nostalgia. While never quite turning the volume up to 11 on this one, the guys created one of their most momentous, yet graceful and emotional tracks, pairing perfectly with the louder, grungier tracks. Crisp, clean, distortion free lead guitar pulls listeners in, at the mercy of Mascis.
Dinosaur Jr. has masterfully harnessed the raw power of rock and infused it with a vulnerability that is as captivating as it is enduring. The band refuses to hide behind distortion, and overtly heavy guitar playing, exposing listeners purely to raw-talent, perfectly original guitar playing and convincingly authentic lyrics, in a way most alt-rockers will never quite be able to. With each track, the record delves deeper into the emotional reservoir that lies beneath the surface.
In the growing book of alternative and indie rock history, Where You Been stands as a luminary work, sitting damn close to the top. With each repeat listen we are reminded just of how influential Dinosaur Jr remains amongst what was to come in the latter half of the 90s, and all the way to today. Records like this can remind us about how at the end of the day, categorizing music into small distinct categories doesn’t always work. Groups like Dinosaur Jr. can simply transcend them too easily. As strange as it may sound, perhaps it really is the broader terms like “alternative rock” which may allow us to somewhat explain to someone just what exactly this record is because it’s not really grunge, it’s not really noise rock and it’s not punk. At the end of the day, you’re not going to be able to describe Where You Been, you just have to listen to it, and if it’s been a while, give it another spin, it’ll be worth it.