Bloomington's Jagjaguwar is quietly becoming the coolest record label on the planet - or, at least, just as cool as a couple labels with which Jagjaguwar shares space and resources, Secretly Canadian and Dead Oceans. Killer acts like Brooklyn noise rock band Oneida, Wisconsin rural folkie Bon Iver and Vancouver psych-rockers Black Mountain have been setting the indie rock scene on fire, chalking up major cred points for Jagjaguwar. A couple certifiable eccentrics - Austin, Texas' bi-polar troubadour Daniel Johnston and Half Japanese's Jad Fair - are also on the label. But the coolest feather in Jagjaguwar's cap was added recently when the seminal alt-rock trio Dinosaur Jr. signed with the label to release their upcoming album, Farm.
The best news, at least for us Hoosiers, is that this Jagjaguwar business has made it possible for us to see Dinosaur Jr. at the Bluebird Friday, April 10, as part of a short spring jaunt that's taking the band into smaller communities that they bypassed on their last tour.
An advance track off of Farm, "I Don't Wanna Go There," reveals that the members of Dinosaur Jr. are evolving and building upon the guitar-heavy sound of their last album, Beyond.
"I think we even play louder on this record then we did on the last record," Dinosaur Jr. bassist and Sebadoh frontman Lou Barlow tells me during a recent phoner. "I think it just has a cooler, better aesthetic feel overall."
When the original lineup of Dinosaur Jr. got back together in 2005 (after being separated since Barlow's departure in 1989), few expected them to last beyond a tour or two, especially after original bassist Barlow reunited his post-Dinosaur Jr. project, the low-fi indie-rock band Sebadoh.
Yet apparently the whole experience went so well that, last fall, the classic Dinosaur Jr. lineup - bassist Barlow, guitarist and vocalist J. Mascis and drummer Murph - once again found themselves in the studio.
"This time we did it a lot quicker and it seems the songs just came more naturally to us," Barlow says. "This is a sound that we came up with after doing the last record and touring for the past two years or so."
That sound they came up with suggests that, nearly 20 years after the core lineup broke apart, Dinosaur, Jr. has once again become a living, breathing, evolving band.
Songwriting and fury
The Amherst, Mass.-born band, founded in 1984 as Dinosaur, came together when Mascis teamed up with his former high school classmate Barlow. Murph was soon to follow, replacing Barlow on the set. The first three records the band recorded for indie labels Homestead and SST- 1985's Dinosaur (released before a jam band of the same name sued Mascis' crew and led them to append Jr.), 1987's You're Living All Over Me and 1988's Bug - were blistering slabs of noise that blended the pop sensibilities of Mascis' songwriting craft and post-punk fury.
"Repulsion," "Freak Scene" and "Kracked" were anthems that defined what alternative music meant to a generation of Xers. They were a bit more accessible than Sonic Youth, heavier than the Pixies and started the wall of feedback sound that shoe-gazers like My Bloody Valentine perfected in the early '90s.
After Barlow exited the band and began Sebadoh, Mascis kept Dinosaur Jr. going, even scoring a bona-fide hit in 1994 with "Feel The Pain." But to many fans, the band never quite equaled the dizzying heights of those first records.
During a 2006 reunion tour, the reformed band was in top form, blazing through material from those first three albums. Mascis brought a new dimension to his guitar playing, peeling off sheets of guitar noise loud enough to vibrate internal organs.
2007's Beyond, the first album released by the original lineup since 1988 (or released by any form of Dinosaur, Jr. since 1997), was a surprise critical success, given that reunited bands don't always have something to say in the studio. Songs were strong and varied, and the set even included a couple Barlow-penned songs. The record also showed Mascis to be more at ease with his guitar hero status, creating melodic, yet crushing guitar epics that Built to Spill's Doug Martsch would give his eyeteeth for.
Not that it was easy.
"It can be challenging in the studio, because it's not as physical," Barlow explains. "Live, we play a lot by feel, and don't really have that ability to feel the music in a studio. So, a lot of it is trying to figure out how to recreate our sound so that it translates onto a recording.
I ask Barlow if he would be open to playing some of the classic Dinosaur stuff that was released after he left the band in 1989.
"Sure," he replies. "It's just harder for me, because I wasn't there when those songs were recorded. When I learn them it's harder for me to remember them, because I didn't play them when I was younger, so they're not burned into my memory."
Barlow chuckles, "I think most Dinosaur Jr. fans could give a shit less whether I'm in the band or not. They just want to hear the songs that they have loved - from when I was in the band, to long after I'd left. I'm here to be a component of J.'s legacy. I'm not here to say, 'I didn't play on this record!' and be a bitch about it."
The idea of Dinosaur Jr.'s sonic assault in the confines of the Bluebird is downright scary, but Barlow isn't worried.
"We're playing places that we haven't played before, or that we didn't hit on the last tour," Barlow explains. "So we are going to be giving the fans the classics. We might play a couple of new songs, but mainly this tour is about giving people a chance to hear the classic stuff."
Given Mascis' penchant for picking top-notch openers, it's no surprise that a young band from Michigan called Awesome Color has opening dates on this tour. Think Iggy doing his best Jim Morrison in front of Black Sabbath doing Roky Ericsson covers, and you've got Awesome Color.
An in-studio performance of "I Don't Wanna Go There" from Farm for pitchfork.tv: