Friday, December 10, 2010

December 10: Dinosaur Jr., "Freak Scene"

Artist: Dinosaur Jr.
Song: "Freak Scene"
Album: Bug
Year: 1987

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One can easily make the case that perhaps the biggest misconception in music over the past thirty years is the idea that the "grunge" sound "came out of nowhere."  While many critics and fans alike prefer to think that these bands were so revolutionary and "fed up" with the sound of the prebious decade that it was their collective frustrations that led to this sound, it is simply not the case.  Though it does not sound as exciting, the fact of the matter is, a number of bands were recording this so-called "grunge" sound many years before it broke though into the mainstream.  Bands like The Pixies and Hüsker Dü had been making a point of bringing heavy emotion and loud guitars back into rock, yet there was no other band that pushed music forward quite like Dinosaur Jr.  Largely the brain-child of the brilliant J. Mascis, the music of Dinosaur Jr. brought a distorted fuzz and power to music that can clearly be seen as the blueprint for the Seattle-based bands that would become famous for the sound.  While the bands' 1987 album, You're Living All Over Me, was nothing short of a landmark recording, it was their next release, 1988's Bug, that remains one of the most stunning moments in all of music history.  Released on the equally legendary SST label, the album brings together a strange combination of metal, sludge, and noise that somehow manages to fit perfectly with the almost folk-like writing of Mascis.  Without an off moment anywhere to be found, one can point to Dinosaur Jr.'s  1987 song, "Freak Scene," as one of the most overlooked, yet truly monumental recordings ever made.

The instant that "Freak Scene" begins, the crushing three-chord progression grabs the listener, and in this distorted twang, one can hear the formula for bands ranging from Nirvana to The Lemonheads, and nearly every other "alternative" or "indie" band that appeared over the next few years.  Furthermore, the simple hook is amazingly catchy, and Mascis brilliantly bounces back and forth between a heavy metal style aggression and a strangely poppy, clean riff.  During the mid-section of "Freak Scene," Mascis makes his case as one of the most talented and creative guitarists of his generation, and the manner in which his pulverizing solo turns on a dime back into a more mellow progression is nothing short of stunning.  It is the way in which Mascis seems to move effortlessly through the different tempos and moods on "Freak Scene" that in many ways embodies his generation, and it is this element that later bands would attempt to replicate.  Along with Mascis, "Freak Scene" would be one of the final recordings that bassist Lou Barlow would make with Dinosaur Jr. for nearly two decades.  His work here is superb, and it is the oddly upbeat, winding groove that he brings that gives "Freak Scene" its signature groove.  Rounding out the band is the man simply known as "Murph" (real name: Emmett Murphy) on drums, and the aggression with which he plays would be the defining sound of the "grunge" movement.  The way in which the trio comes together on "Freak Scene" is truly beyond words, and it is their combined effort that turns the song into an unquestionably pivotal moment in music history.

Along with being a top-notch guitarist and music writer, J. Mascis also stands as one of the most unique vocal talents, as well as a lyricist whose words are some of the most moving of his generation.  Making no attempts to "hide" his voice, Mascis' sound is completely unique, and the raw nature of his singing helps to add an uncanny level of emotion to every song which he sings.  There is an odd beauty to Mascis' voice, and many later bands would also attempt (unsuccessfully) to replicate this sound.  The level of honesty in his voice also remains unrivaled, and one can feel the close connection he has to every lyric which he sings.  On "Freak Scene," Mascis recalls a rather muddled relationship, yet he does so with a clear grin, and it is this odd brightness that largely defines the music of Dinosaur Jr.  There is a simple beauty to the words of J. Mascis, and one would be hard pressed to find a more universally relatable lyric than when he sings, "...sometimes I don't thrill you, sometimes I think I'll kill you...just don't let me fuck up will you, 'cause when I need a friend it's still you..."  Such a sentiment can be found across all of music history, yet the style and words he chooses here make this version nothing short of perfect for the generation that was "on the rise" during the tail end of the 1980's.  Though it is about as non-traditional as it gets, there is a rare beauty in the voice of J. Mascis, and it is this aspect that defines Dinosaur Jr. as a band.

While the frank, yet profound writing is largely what makes Dinosaur Jr's songs so phenomenal, there are also moments when one can see the true genius of J. Mascis.  This has rarely been more clear than on "Freak Scene," when as the song progresses, it almost seems as if Mascis' words are beginning to fail him.  This does not seem to throw Mascis even for a moment, as he breaks into a guitar solo, and it is here that one can experience emotive playing on a truly unrivaled level.  The amount of feeling that Mascis is able to convey via his guitar is nothing short of stunning, and one can make the case that it is this performance that defines the idea of music being able to communicate feelings that cannot be described through words.  Buried in the heavier, slightly aggressive music, there is a magnificence that knows no peer, and it is due to "Freak Scene" excelling on so many different levels that it can be seen as the catalyst for so many later bands and movements.  Though the song did not achieve the type of success that many of the bands contemporaries and followers would find, it is impossible to deny the overall importance of the song, as it is unquestionably the precursor to the musical explosion that followed a few years later.  Somehow, Dinosaur Jr. manages to get better and more impressive as the years pass, yet one cannot deny the historical significance, massive influence, and remarkably moving achievement that is their 1988 song, "Freak Scene."

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