Quarantining The Past: Dinosaur Jr.’s ‘Where You Been’

    2012 marks 25 years since Dinosaur Jr. put out their landmark album, You’re Living All Over Me. It might be the best record (unless it’s Bug, good luck deciding) that the original trio of J Mascis, Lou Barlow, and Murph mad together. It’s an album worth celebrating — and Merge Records has done so with the great live album from 1987, Chocomel Daze — but in light of that high-water mark, it’s also worth looking back on where the band went from here, because a few years later, on 1993’s Where You Been, Mascis and Murph nearly outdid themselves.

    I exclude Barlow, of course, because he and Mascis had that now infamous and very strange split after Bug came out. Even though Mascis produced the Breeders’ version of Barlow’s “The Freed Pig” — a song he recorded to take a shot at Mascis on his other band, Sebadoh’s, III — the two had little to do with each other as Dinosaur Jr. moved into the ’90s. Now, Where You Been was not the first Dinosaur Jr. album without Barlow (that would be 1991’s Green Mind). In some ways, though, that’s a technicality. Murph played drums on only three tracks for that record, and Mascis play most everything else there. So yeah, it’s a Dino Jr. record, but you could also argue it’s an early Mascis solo record in disguise. 

    Where You Been features Murph playing drums for the whole record, and it’s really the only major-label Dinosaur Jr. album to feature a full band behind Mascis. It’s also a classic record from the band, capturing just about every great ’90s song they had aside from “The Wagon” and “Feel the Pain”. There’s “What Else is New?” and “Get Me” and “Start Choppin'” and “Goin Home” and so on. There’s not a bad song on the album, and it shows Murph and Mascis pushing forward past the lean muscle of those early records with Barlow. They take the major-label budget and beef up their sound, playing with the metal touches they always had in their songs. “Drawerings” has the cement-block heft of metal in its riffs, but that’s a subtle influence compared to the speed-metal soloing of “On the Way.” 

    But while this was the setting we finally got to see just how heroic Mascis’s guitar heroics were, and just how essential Murph’s drumming was (and is) to the Dino Jr. sound, there is also Barlow’s influence hovering over these songs. His maudlin experimentation is all over the record. There’s the watery, acoustic moodpiece “Not the Same” that drops the record into a dark, mysterious valley in the middle, and later bonus track “Keeblin'” which feels more like Mascis’s style of acoustic word, but there’s something gravelly and low and soft about his voice that hints at Barlow’s singing. The thick layering and overcast vibe of “Goin’ Home”, with those haunting organs floating around in the ether sure sounds like something Barlow would dig into.

    It’s not even that these moments sound like Barlow’s Dinosaur Jr. work, which was always the strangest stuff on any of their albums. But since Mascis was involved in some of his Sebadoh work, and since Barlow was making all kinds of strange, melancholy sounds as Sentridoh or Sebadoh or himself during his tenure in Dinosaur Jr., Where You Been feels a bit like Mascis synthesizing Barlow’s influence into his own expanding rock palate. In one way, Mascis was the kind of rock guitarist meant for major labels. His riffs are at their biggest and most punishing on Where You Been and, if “Feel the Pain” was on this record, this one would have lapped Without a Sound in sales a few times over.

    However, Where You Been was also the last true collaboration for Mascis until Barlow and Murph returned on Beyond in 2007. The longer he played Dinosaur Jr. as a solo effort — Murph left after Where You Been — the more he got away from Murph’s perfect foundation for his guitar work, the more he got away from Barlow as the bittersweet shadow to his sunburst, dude-rock tendencies. Where You Been is as perfect a meshing of influences from these three great musicians without, you know, having all three there to play. Barlow may not be on this record, but he’s a part of it, intentionally or not.

    So while we celebrate the band’s first great success, You’re Living All Over Me, let’s not forget what we thought nearly 20 years ago would be there last. Because Where You Been is as good as Dinosaur Jr. got on a major label, and while it may be Mascis’s songs and Murph’s drums that got them there, let’s not discount the long shadow of Lou Barlow hanging over these recordings. Barlow would release Bubble and Scrape, an excellent Sebadoh record, two months after Where You Been came out, and maybe, just maybe, Mascis wanted to one-up his former bandmate. And, if that was his goal, you can see — down in the details — how he might have tried to beat Barlow at his own game. And maybe there was no clear winner between the two, but we sure lucked out.