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
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