Whatever’s Cool With Mascis: Green Mind at 30

How the first Dinosaur Jr. LP without Lou Barlow still resonates today

30 Years of Green Mind (Art: Ron Hart)

Released 30 years ago (February 19, 1991), Green Mind was a double milestone release: the first Dinosaur Jr. album without Lou Barlow, and the first on a major label.

Barlow’s contributions to the three previous albums were bass (which Mascis handled himself here with no loss of character), a screaming vocal on the last Bug track, and a sub-par song plus an ultra-lo-fi home recording tacked onto You’re Living All Over Me that didn’t really fit in. Complaints about his absence come from indie-ethos purists who consider uneven quality and lack of focus hallmark virtues; they can go listen to their Sebadoh albums.

J. Mascis on MTV 1991 (Photo: Google)

It has also been much remarked on that Mascis handles much of the drumming here, with regular drummer Murph on only three of the ten songs, though one of them is the marvelous opener. Anyway, Mascis had been a drummer before Dinosaur Jr. and has continued to man the tubs on several side projects, so the drumming doesn’t suffer.

As for being on a major (Warner Bros.-owned Sire’s fake-indie subsidiary Blanco y Negro), well, Mascis self-produced with Sean Slade engineering,  just as they did on the previous Bug. And the most famous of the few guest contributors is Don Fleming, a paragon of indieness. The sound is clearer than the incredibly muddy You’re Living All Over Me and the somewhat flattened/compressed but still powerful Bug, but is that a problem when it makes Mascis’s guitar playing more impactful?

If the label had been intent on making the band more palatable for the mainstream, surely its first target would have been to eliminate the many out-of-tune moments in J’s vocals, but wisely his highly personal style was left to shine in all its askew glory. And yes, there’s a mellower track, “Thumb,” but one suspects that adding Mellotron flute (by Slade) was nobody’s idea of rock accessibility in 1991. After all, this was when the majors were all looking for the next Nirvana – and J had been asked to join Nirvana two years earlier.

 

VIDEO: Dinosaur Jr. “The Wagon”

Like Bug, which led off with the sterling “Freak Scene,” its only single, Green Mind kicked off with its sole single, “The Wagon,” which is similarly rifftastic. The songwriting remains hooky throughout, however; as much as I love Bug with all my heart, often the best parts there are the freak-out guitar solos, not the riffs or melodies. On Green Mind, however, it all comes together. For the first time, a Dinosaur Jr. album ends with a track that doesn’t sound like a bad joke.

Green Mind is less angry than before; having burned hotly with punk fury on the early albums, here Mascis becomes more ruminative – there’s even an acoustic-guitar track, “Flying Cloud.” Maybe it’s all a breakup album commenting on his band’s schism…J is not a guy prone to explaining his songs, so it’s all speculation…but it seems to have way more depth than that. He still doesn’t understand what’s going on or why he doesn’t fit in, but instead of rebelling, he’s analyzing (or, in musician/critic Fred Thomas’s immortal formulation, “alone in a room arguing with himself”), and maybe even admitting sometimes that a little maturity and perspective are allowed and he might have learned some useful things about personal agency. Hearing somebody come to terms with these sorts of issues arguably became a classic indie-rock trope due in no small part to Mascis’s example, and carries more weight when the guy doing it can rip off an incendiary guitar solo like the one on “How’d You Pin That One on Me.” 

On one level, it’s hard to believe Green Mind is 30 years old, because there is something timeless about the sound that J. Mascis conjures here. Then you realize it’s because of how influential it’s been on the scene down to the present day, and it’s easier to believe. It sure does hold up well.

 

 

 

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Steve Holtje

Steve Holtje is a composer (classical and soundtrack) and improviser (keyboardist in the Caterpillar Quartet and This Humidity). His classical compositions have recently been performed by pianist Tania Stavreva and the Cheah-Chan Duo; one of his soundtracks can be found on Bandcamp. His day job since 2013 has been running ESP-Disk, first under founder Bernard Stollman and, since Mr. Stollman's passing, doing his best to perpetuate and publicize the indiest indie label's unique legacy. He has produced albums by Matthew Shipp, Amina Baraka & The Red Microphone, Fay Victor, etc. Previously he worked at Black Saint Records, where he was present at the last studio session of Sun Ra. Other jobs have included editorial positions at Creem, The Big Takeover, and The New York Review of Records; inevitably, he also worked at a record store in Williamsburg (Sound Fix), where one night after closing, while drinking across the street at Mugs Ale House, he preached to some tourists about the greatness of jazz bagpiper Rufus Harley, which led to him reopening the store and selling them a copy of Harley's Re-Creation of the Gods. This is widely considered the most Holtje-esque occurrence ever. (Photo by Dale Mincey)

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