Feats of Strength: Dinosaur Jr.

Dinosaur Jr. is one of the greatest bands to come out of the American underground in the last thirty years, first rising up as some of the first heroes of Alternative Nation, and then years later defying convention by mounting a comeback that has seen their recent output matching (and in some cases surpassing) their work from their early golden years.  Over the course of their career, most of the attention has understandably been given to guitarist and lead singer J Mascis, as his incredible guitar playing convinced a generation of punks that hey, it’s cool to know how to play your instrument, and his slacker-ish whine was imitated by scores of other bands.  Bassist Lou Barlow also received a share of the spotlight, both for his unique and innovative bass playing as well as his engaging and combative personality.  In addition, Barlow has been recognized for his notable post-Dinosaur Jr. career, with his work in Sebadoh and Folk Implosion providing the spark for the lo-fi revolution in the 90’s.

Today, however, we’re going to highlight an under-appreciated aspect of the Dinosaur Jr. sound with our focus on the contribution of long-time drummer Murph.  Though he has begun to receive more credit through the years, and is rightfully considered one of the primary reasons why Dinosaur Jr.’s recent work has been so strong, his earlier work has not received as much attention.  To an extent, that was reflected within the band itself, as Green Thumb only had Murph drumming on a couple of tracks–a sign of the future when J would take over full-time for a couple of albums.

“Thumb” is one of the few ballads in the Dino catalog, with a memorable mellotron riff that flutters above the melody for the duration of the song.  It has a nice elliptical chord progression, and J’s trademark plaintive whine fits the longing nature of the lyrics.  But for me, the real key to this song is the pure power from the kick and snare drum, which give an extra bitterness to J’s lyrics.  Lines like “an excuse is all you’re in for, the abuse is all you crave” take on an extra snarl when it’s emphasized with those syncopated big hits.  Murph switches the rhythm for the chorus, and by throwing in a couple of either unexpected hits or rests, it complements the ambivalent sentiment of lines like “Pretty good, not feeling that fine–getting up most every day”.

But for the most part it’s the simple force behind the drums that make the song truly stand out, making it an organic version of a “power ballad”.  You can feel the intensity through the speakers, especially in lines like the fill that leads into the second chorus.  As a result, “Thumb” is one of the few Dinosaur Jr. songs that I’ll air drum instead of air guitar–though when the solo kicks in at the end, I try to do both.

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