Mascis and Co. Back From Extinction

When Dinosaur Jr front-man J Mascis delivered the appropriately-named

Hand It Over to the suits at Reprise, they were a bit surprised.

Following closely on the heels on Mascis's disappointing solo effort,

Martin + Me, Reprise didn't know whether Mascis was going to

concentrate his efforts on solo efforts (which, due to Martin +

Me's disappointing sales, must have a few Reprise moneymen squirming

in their seats); indeed, some at Reprise were wondering whether to ever

expect a Dinosaur Jr disc.

What a difference a band makes. Hand It Over should lay to rest any

doubts about Mascis and Co.'s staying power. It is the band's best album

since Where You Been, and may indeed be their best album ever.

After serving for years as Mascis's project with a revolving cast of

back-up musicians (including, at one point, Sebedoh front-man and

indie-idol Lou Barlow), Dinosaur Jr has evolved into a polished, but still

rough-hewn, power-trio, with bassist Mike Johnson backing Mascis's

growling, revelatory guitarmanship.

The album starts with the crunching sounds of Mascis's guitar and his

trademark falsetto on "I Don't Think," a classic Dino Jr song--strong

riffs, great bridges, and alienation reeking from every pore in the song.

"I don't talk too much about it," Mascis sings in the song's refrain, in

what could be taken as his philosophy in life. Still, "I Don't Think,"

while satisfying enough, doesn't offer anything spectacular. The album

doesn't really get off the ground until the second track, "Never Bought

It," which is a march-like tune led by a flute line that sounds as if it

was born within the song. While continuing the tried and true formula of

Murph's frenetic drumming and J's winsome singing, the mellotron adds a

little something extra, and serves as proof that Dinosaur Jr, far from

resting within the comfort of their tried and true formula for success, is

ready to spice things up a bit.

Hand It Over's occasional use of horns (okay, so the flute isn't a

horn, but you know what I mean) comes to a glorious, magnificent peak on

"I'm Insane." J sings of desperation, loneliness, and humans' inescapable

isolation in the world -- the song begins with the line, "If I ran away

today / would you still be here tomorrow?" But it's the trumpet line that

separates this tune from the rest of this wonderful album, piping in the

theme as soon as the song starts with a riff that's sure to become

instantly implanted on your brain, and then returning to anchor the song

from time to time. In mid-song, J breaks out in one of his incendiary

solos that should immediately be added to great Mascis moments captured on

disc (Hand It Over is chock full of Mascis's soaring,

quasi-psychedelic guitar solos that tend to be showcases of both economy

and virtuosity), but it's the piccolo trumpet line that sets this song

head and shoulders above the rest.

Indeed, there's not a weak song on this 12-song collection. The

song-titles show the personally reticent Mascis is growing more

comfortable wearing his heart on his sleeve when on disc. "Alone," "Sure

Not Over You," "I Know You're Insane," and "Gotta Know" are just some of

the song titles that grace Hand It Over, with lyrics to match.

"Sure Not Over You," one of the album's ballads (if any Dinosaur Jr song

can rightfully be called a ballad) is another highlight. As tender as

Mascis ever is on disc, he's secure enough here not to overplay and let

the force of his singing and his lyrics carry the song: "Every night we're

drifting farther," Mascis sings plaintively as he strums almost delicately

on his guitar; even his brief solos are less flashy than emotional,

another sign of Mascis's growing confidence (no small feat considering the

resounding failure of Martin + Me). "All the love has got to count

for something," Mascis sings, revealing that he knows it doesn't, and this

painful paradox causes J to almost cry, "Cause it's me that's freaking

out....I'm sure not over you."

There are really no weak tracks on Hand It Over, although there are

some standouts -- in addition to previously mentioned "I'm Insane" and

"Sure Not Over You," the folksy "Mick" shows that Mascis and Co. can put

their trademark stamp (the over-the-top drum fills and searing guitar) in

a variety of styles, and "Gettin Rough," the disc's second to last tune,

which starts off with a softly aggressive banjo-line, is also a surprising

treat.

Dinosaur Jr has flirted on the edge of mainstream success for years, and

seemed poised to hit the big-time after the success Where You Been,

but Mascis's surly personality, combined with the disappointment of

Martin and Me has kept Dinosaur Jr on the musical fringes, gods to

some, totally incomprehensible to others. Whatever your opinion of

Mascis's music, Hand It Over should lay to rest any doubts about

Dinosaur Jr's musicianship and their ability to churn out top-rate songs.

Let's hope the endlessly hard-to-pin down continues in this vein, and

doesn't make us wait another couple of albums before coming out with

another masterpiece.