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Sunday, 16 September 2012

Dinosaur Jr. - Without a Sound (1994)

It’s weird when we look back at how the tiniest of things in our lives can have the most profound effects on our future trajectory. When I was eleven, my dad enrolled on a foundation course in fine art in Wolverhampton. He was a fantastic illustrator, and probably could have made something of it had short-term finances not kept him for continuing. My dad once brought home a tape for me that one of his college friends had passed on for me to listen to. The tape was called WEA NME and had come free on an issue of NME, containing eight tracks. Side one featured songs that have now been established as classics, including Green Day’s ‘Basket Case’ and Red Hot Chilli Peppers’ ‘Suck My Kiss’. There were also tracks on there by Jesus and Mary Chain, Jesus Lizard and Babylon Zoo (yes, that Babylon Zoo). My favourite track was Dinosaur Jr.’s ‘Feel the Pain’ – there was something about the music that really spoke to me. I don’t think it was the angst of the opening line “I feel the pain of everyone / Then I feel nothing”, nor the insanely fast guitar solo at the end, it was rather the dynamic range of the song from sensitive guitar in the verse, to the fuzz-laden riff of the chorus. Of the bands on this tape, I ended up buying the albums of five (Babylon Zoo wasn’t one of them!) It’s strange to think that this tape became the foundation for the evolution of my musical taste. I wonder - if I hadn’t heard that tape, would I be deciding whether to keep or cull Dinosaur Jr.’s ‘Without a Sound’ today?

‘Feel the Pain’ opens the album, and the song still gets me. I don’t think I could ever get bored of hearing this. ‘I Don’t Think So’ is indie-pop catchiness in its purest form. The guitar solo in this song is great. I love the fact that J. Mascis had the gumption to go against the grunge grain and sing cheerful indie-rock songs with complicated guitar solos. ‘Yeah Right’ is not a great song. It has the feel of some of the filler tracks that would appear on one of those Shine compilations from the mid-90s. ‘Outta Hand’ is just wonderful – acoustic guitars, great chord changes and layered vocals make this a really relaxing song to listen to. This feeling of relaxation is quickly slapped from you as ‘Grab It’ blasts in with distortion and feedback that sounds as though it’s going to make the amp explode at any second. It’s the sound I imaging REM would have created on their early albums had they kicked up the fuzz and feedback. What I like about the song is that the distortion and feedback add to the melody and feeling of the song rather than just drown it in noise. ‘Even You’ is slow and deliberate with incredibly warm and dense distortion that just pulls at your heart. ‘Mind Glow’ shows how heavy distortion can be used sensitively and melodically to create space and ambience within a song. The guitar is left to resonate in the background after each strum as the fuzz floats around Spanish-sounding guitar riffs. ‘On the Brink’ is a strange song: I really used to like it until I realised how much the guitar-riff sounded like ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ by Deep Blue Something. When I’m listening to a CD, I don’t want to be reminded of the playlist of local radio stations up and down the country, especially as I fear that the next song on the album will sound like ‘Kiss Me’ by Sixpence None the Richer or ‘Would I Lie to You’ by Charles and Eddie. Album-closer ‘Over my Shoulder’ is quite disappointing, sounding like a generic Dinosaur Jr. song; there’s nothing that stands out about it and it feels like a bit of an anti-climax to an otherwise very good album.

This album is definitely a keeper. The WEA NME tape has long since spilled, yet ‘Feel the Pain’ still remains one of my favourite songs.

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Anonymous said...

Well done, nice article! I can relate to it a lot, especially the "Feel The Pain on a mixtape" part. That's how I discovered Dinosaur Jr too. And like you I am still fond of this album, although I went on to love other records more I guess (You're Living All Over Me & Green Mind).
It is my impression that Without a Sound ended up getting a lot of bad reviews and rather negative opinions over the years and I never really understood why. Where You Been seems to be so much more popular amongst fans and critics for example, but I don't think Without a Sound pales in comparison. Out There probably beats Feel The Pain as an opener (just) but from then on both albums are pretty consistent in their own ways.
I remember JMascis looking back on Without a Sound for an interview saying he didn't like it because he was drinking heavily during the recording sessions and felt he could have done a better job. It's actually easy to hear the drunken haze on some of the tracks but to me it's part of what makes this album special. The band (with or without original members) has never quite captured that mood before or since.
Anyway, thanks for the memories and the interesting perspective on this often overlooked gem of the grunge era.

JC said...

I never understood why this album got so much heat. It’s possible that the album is a little poppier than earlier ones, and I think there may have been a bit of line-up change around this period.

Glad that you are enjoying the blog, it means a lot.

Industrialnorth said...

I always preferred the eariler dinosaur jr albums to the later ones. You're living all over me and bug are stone cold classics. That being said, I really like the new albums since they reformed. They've got a new album out now, and I really hope they tour it. Seeing them at the O2 a couple of years ago was one of the best gigs I've ever seen

Anonymous said...

The new album is very good indeed, and apparently they will be touring it a lot. JMascis says I Bet On Sky reminds him of Where You Been but most positive reviews liken it to Without a Sound or even Green Mind because of the poppier sound. Like, now it's ok to like Without a Sound again. Go figure.

JC said...

Criticism is so subjective, and an album's critical reception can often have a lot to do with context and expectation.
For me, this was the first Dinosaur Jr. album I ever owned, and got into albums like Bug much later on. They're an awesome band.

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