You're living all over me.
When I hear "You're Living All Over Me", I'm always reminded of walking on a country road on a sunny spring afternoon. It's a very specific country road, that being the one I lived on back when I was in high school. I used to walk on that road a lot back then, always listening to my Walkman. When I was 14 years old, it was one of the few uncomplicated pleasures of my life. My home life was monotonous stressful hell, I barely had any friends, and none that I felt like understood me as I really was, and school was a drudge for any number of reasons. I used to long for those hours that I could spend walking away from my house in the afternoon, getting past the house where the obnoxious neighbor kid who was two years younger than me lived and out to the area on the road where there were few houses and none that were occupied by people who knew me. The worst part was always having to turn back at a certain point, because I was getting tired and I had to head home at some point. I knew it had to happen, but it was never fun.
I first heard Dinosaur Jr. on a summer afternoon broadcast by the local university station. They played their raucous cover of The Cure's "Just Like Heaven" (included as a bonus track on the 2005 reissue on Merge), and as much as I love the original version, I was blown away by the screaming guitar noise all over the Dinosaur Jr. version. But I didn't really fall in love with their music until a friend of mine made me two different mixtapes that, between them, contained two songs from "You're Living All Over Me". The first of the two was "Raisans", and in order to fully explain why it had as much of an effect on me as it did, I have to be honest about some embarrassing early teenage shit that was going on in my life at the time. See, I had a crush on this girl, this girl who actually lived about a mile down the country road I lived on, though that was just a coincidence. I'd actually seen her at the swimming pool first. By the way, maybe memories of going to the pool as a teenager are only traumatic for me, but my God... I haven't owned a bathing suit since I was about 18, that's how crappy it was for me. Anyway, let's not dwell on that. Let's get back to my dumb early-teenage crush on this girl.
I had a thing for her for over a year without ever saying anything to her. I don't think we ever actually had a conversation throughout my two years of having a crush on her, in fact. I was a total social retard at the age of 14--which is not to say that I'm not now, but I'm not as bad as I was then. Anyway, maybe I would have gotten over her after spending all of ninth grade having a ridiculous unspoken crush on her, but then she was in my 10th grade biology class, which started it all up again. This was the point at which I heard "Raisans" for the first time. It was (and is) an awesome song on a purely musical level, so that probably helped it have such an intense effect on me. J Mascis's guitar sound was loud, noisy, distorted, and at the same time incredibly melodic. He could obviously play guitar very well, and therefore was able to avoid the rudimentary power chords that a lot of guitarists I was listening to at the time used exclusively. Instead, he used more complicated chords that integrated higher notes. Maybe they were melodies or harmonies, I honestly don't understand guitar playing and music theory in general well enough to know. All I know is that the chords J used on "Raisans" sounded fuller, thicker and more melodic, even though they had enough distortion on them to also evoke a wind tunnel. Something about the combination of melody and noise has always done it for me, but now that I think of it, it's entirely possible that Dinosaur Jr. were the first band I ever heard that combined those elements in a really effective manner.
"Raisans" starts with an instrumental version of the chorus, used as an intro. The verse is probably the most conventionally catchy riff in the song, but what really catches my attention about this early section of the song is what happens between the first verse and the chorus that follows it. There's an instrumental bridge there, which starts with a relatively quiet part featuring an undistorted single-note melody from the guitar, then comes out of that into escalating chords. Halfway through the last measure before the chorus, the bass and drums stop, and it becomes clear just how many tracks of guitar are on this song. As one track of guitar lets a chord ring and another repeatedly hammers on a note, Van Halen style, a third track, the loudest, features a total disintegration of the riff. It sounds like J stopped playing anything resembling a chord, instead grabbing the neck of his guitar with one hand and punching the strings repeatedly with the other. It amounts to a noisy derailment of the entire song, but it only lasts one or two seconds before the bass and drums come back in and the other guitar tracks join in with them to go right into the chorus. The song regains its footing momentarily here, playing through the chorus with a melodic roar, only to once again stop completely at the end of the chorus. This time the guitars cut off along with the bass and the drums, and there's a second of silence, into which drummer Murph places a short tom roll. Once the tom roll ends, the whole band goes back into the song, now playing a completely different verse that sounds more like a bridge. This one flows into another quiet, instrumental pre-chorus, over which Lou Barlow plays a tape of an old man muttering unintelligibly. On this album, Dinosaur's second, Lou had managed to exert some creative control over the band, and in addition to writing two of the album's nine songs (one of which, "Poledo", should probably have been on the first Sebadoh album instead), his big creative contribution to the album is the use of these tape loops, which show up in several other places on the album as well. The distorted, unintelligible tape loop (sole audible line: "You're killing me," repeated several times) turns what would have been a quiet, reflective moment into something much weirder, which served to emphasize the dark undertone of the song's lovelorn lyrics.
Remember I mentioned that this song blew me away at a time when I was over a year into an unrequited crush on a girl I'd never spoken to? Imagine how lines like "I'll be down, I'll be around, I'll be hanging where eventually you'll have to be" sounded to me from that perspective. "Hey," I thought. "This guy understands me. He handles his crushes in the same way I do." Standing around waiting for a girl you have a thing for to walk by and, inevitably, not notice you. I could relate to that. At another point in the song, J says, "My eyes peeled open, cemented to her face." Staring at a girl who has no idea you exist from across a (class)room, looking away whenever she looks in your direction only to look back the second she turns away. Yeah, I could relate to that too. I look back now and feel like the whole thing was incredibly stupid, but I also realize that it's far more common than I knew at the time. J Mascis was expressing a mentality that a lot of socially awkward teenagers have exemplified over the years. I didn't know that then, though. I thought I was the only one, at least until a Dinosaur Jr. song came out of nowhere and said things I could relate to.
And what about the rest of that song? Well, after the Barlow tape loop came another chorus, then an absolutely blazing solo. J's solo on the "Just Like Heaven" cover chewed up Roger O'Donnell's keyboard solo on the original and spit out a flaming ball of noise, but it was still melodically the same solo. The solo on "Raisans" was solely a product of J's own mind, and it took up about a minute of the song's 3:30 length. J bent notes all over the place, hammered on the strings for a second, at one point managed to cause a note to dissolve into naked distortion before bringing the solo back together with a gorgeous melodic run, then reached the end and held the last note for 5 seconds as it soared from the left speaker to the right and back. The song had one last chorus, the "I'll be down, I'll be around" bit, only this time, J changed the last line, singing "Now you'll have to decide the fate of my sanity." That sounded so cool to me at 14--girl, you gotta be with me or I'm just gonna go INSANE--but again, looking back on it now points out a dark undertone that I just couldn't see at that age.
The other song that my friend put on a mixtape for me was "Little Fury Things", and this is the one that most reminds me of afternoon walks down a sunny country road. Part of that might have something to do with the rarely-seen video for "Little Fury Things", which I caught on 120 Minutes one of the only times it was ever played. I taped it and watched it over and over again, as was my usual practice where videos by my favorite bands were concerned. The video contained a bunch of footage of the members of Dinosaur Jr. walking around a pastoral countryside, and maybe that infected my impressions of the song, but honestly, I think the song just has that kind of sound anyway. Maybe the band members picked up on that too, and that's why they used that footage in the video. Who knows. Anyway, "Little Fury Things" had a more abrasive sound than "Raisans", at least at first. Starting with a guitar sound created by combining one track of incredibly distorted guitar with another track of a slightly less distorted guitar being played through a wah-wah pedal, "Little Fury Things" kicked off with a bang, and Lou Barlow increased its abrasiveness quotient by screaming incoherently over the intro. What brought things back to that "sunny afternoon on a country road" feel was the chorus that came next in the song, almost jarring in its very lack of the noise that started the song. On the choruses of "Little Fury Things", J Mascis harmonizes with Lee Ranaldo of Sonic Youth, whose voice is actually more prominent in the mix than J's. The choruses and the second verse of the song are melodic and undistorted enough to almost sound like a ballad, which makes the non-sequitur lyrics about a rabbit running away and J crawling after it even weirder. I just looked up the lyrics to this song a second ago on the internet, and while I'm sure there's no official lyric sheet out there for this song, the consensus is enough to make it clear to me that I've been misinterpreting them all these years. I thought there was some more discussion of an unrequited crush in this song, but really, I guess I have no idea. Either way, the melodic nature of the song's middle section creates an interesting contrast both with the harsh beginning and the noisy end, in which the chorus is played twice in a row. On the second one, Lee Ranaldo drops out, and J sings by himself even as a track of noisy guitar fades in behind him, changing the feel of the previously melodic chorus and making it hark back to the intro.
These two songs were enough to convince me that I would love the entire album they were from, and once I was able to borrow "You're Living All Over Me" from my friend and dub a copy for myself, I found that this was the case. As I mentioned before, Lou Barlow's song "Poledo", which consisted of lo-fi acoustic snippets and tape loops, didn't really fit in on the album. However, his song "Lose", which he once described as containing every good riff he'd written over the course of two years, was a perfect fit for the album. His lead vocal turn on the track freed J up to lay down plenty of scorching lead guitars, even during verses, and he did plenty of it, while Lou's thick, melodic bassline carried the rhythm of the song. The many changes that the song indeed contained kept things interesting, throwing riffs at you so quickly that some of the best fly by before you even have time to get into them. It's almost a shame that he put so many into one song; some of the riffs that get 5 or 10 seconds of the song leave you wanting a lot more. That said, it's a great track, one of my favorites on the album.
Really, though, almost all of them are favorites. "Sludgefeast", which emerges from the tail end of "Kracked" with a feedback wail, is a slow, mostly instrumental dirge, on which J gets plenty of chance to throw around bent, distorted, scorching guitar noise. That's kind of the motif of the album, but this song features more of it than usual, and a lot less vocals, though they are there; "I'm waiting," J sings. "Please come back. I've got the guts now to meet your eye." This is another one of those weird unrequited love songs that, as a nervous, passive teenager, I could relate to very much. The highlight of the song comes after J goes through its one verse a second time. "Please wanna hang around," he begs the object of his affections, but a short time later, as the verse ends, the bass, drums, and rhythm guitars all drop out of the song, leaving nothing but a swirling haze of distorted guitar. It sounds like a rampaging swamp monster or something, and listening to it for the first time, it'd be no surprise if you figured the song had ended, trailing off into a wall of noise. It's as if J has given up on his crush of the moment. She didn't want to hang around, and he's thrown his guitar down in disgust, leaving it to generate random trails of fuzz. But after 10 or so seconds of this, the band comes back in, playing at double speed and giving the song a powerful, rocking coda. J plays a much more coherent solo, and the song fades out.
"Tarpit", later in the album, really does fall apart at the end. It's another slow one, with J crooning what really does seem to be a love song to a tarpit, though after my confusion about "Little Fury Things" and the rabbit, I really don't want to assume I know what he's actually talking about here. Anyway, this is another track where Lou Barlow asserts himself through tape loops. Over the song's long coda, J croons something that sounds like "pave my face", over and over, as layers of feedback and distortion pile up around him. It soon becomes clear that, rather than playing these layers, J is still just playing the song's final riff. Meanwhile, Lou has accumulated a bunch of tapes of guitar noise, perhaps from Dinosaur's famously loud live sets, and is now playing all of them at once. Quavering loops swirl around each other, getting louder and stranger until finally the rest of the band drops out and the loops take over for the last 20 or so seconds of the song, tumbling over each other into an apocalyptic soundscape that ends abruptly, as if Lou just reached over and pressed stop. Immediately, "In A Jar" begins. This is the poppiest song on the album, and the transition between the noise fuckery of the coda to "Tarpit" and "In A Jar"s overt catchiness is both jarring and somehow perfect. J uses this pop backdrop to mix lyrics from what seem to be the point of view of a stray dog with bizarre, grotesque images of scabs and gore. Lou gets in a disruption of his own, playing a tape loop of a man screaming over the transition from J's midsong solo into the final chorus. They may be capable of overt pop moments, but Dinosaur Jr. are not content to let a pop song slip by without a couple of bizarre disruptions.
I'd really like to think that I'm in a different place, mentally and emotionally, than I was back when I first got into Dinosaur Jr. The truth is that I'm probably not as far from who and where I was then as I'd like to be. Regardless, this album has an enduring appeal for me that probably will never go away. I don't relate to the dysfunction of the lyrics as much as I once did, though I still do a little bit, but either way, it's the juxtaposition of melody and noise that makes this album the most appealing for me. And besides, it's one of the only good memories of high school that I have left.
Dinosaur Jr. - Little Fury Things
Dinosaur Jr. - Raisans