February 9th, 1993, Dinosaur Jr released their fifth studio album, Where You Been. By the time the band released Where You Been in 1993, the musical landscape had been completely turned on its head. Following the acrimonious bust-up between singer/guitarist J Mascis and bassist/singer Lou Barlow in 1989, Dinosaur Jr. became more or less a solo vehicle for Mascis. Released in February 1991, the band’s fourth album, Green Mind, featured Mascis playing all instruments with a bevvy of musical friends lending support. Barlow was gone, and original drummer Murph only appeared on three tracks. It also saw them move to a major label.
The band’s first three albums had stirred hardcore, psychedelia, noise, country and metal into a blurry and glorious mess of sludge-pop. With these albums, Dinosaur Jr. influenced the bands, spearheading the new alternative rock avalanche emanating from the Pacific Northwest and beyond during the late ’80s and early ’90s. Given the astronomical success of bands like Nirvana, who were openly bowing at the alter of Dinosaur Jr., one might be forgiven for thinking J Mascis would cash in.
Instead, he stuck to his guns, not straying far from the Dinosaur Jr. formula that served him well and helped anoint him as the high priest of guitar-wielding proto-slackers. “They fucking beat you to it! You could have done it, you asshole! We could have fucking done it!” yelled Lou Barlow during a passing encounter with J Mascis in the aftermath of Nirvana’s success.
Where You Been was the first album recorded by Dinosaur Jr.’s new line-up. Mike Johnson, formerly of Oregon punk band Snakepit, and Mark Lanegan collaborator, joined on bass. The album also marked drummer Murph’s last recording with J Mascis until 2007’s Beyond.
In an interview with MTV’s 120 Minutes around the time of the album’s release, Mascis explained, “It’s the first time we’ve felt like a band for maybe six years. Johnson adds a lot, just having someone I can get along with musically and personally. It makes the record better with everyone contributing something.”
Where You Been was Dinosaur Jr.’s most significant commercial success up to that point. The album is occasionally moody and dark but always rowdy and fun. The opening track, “Out There”, has become a Dinosaur Jr. classic with its panoramic, fuzzed-out chord structure. It’s one of Mascis’ finest songs, with a beautiful soaring chorus filled with heart-breaking longing. J’s guitar solo rips and shreds with passion and precision, adding to the emotional intensity.
“Start Choppin” immediately follows. The song is built on a catchy riff a prime Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers would feel proud of. Stuffed to bursting with great hooks, it became as close to a radio hit as the band ever had. Of course, J throws us another face-melting guitar solo that enhances the fun.
The shaggy jangle of “What Else Is New” feels warm and familiar. J uses falsetto to punctuate the lyrics while his guitar fills break in waves of sonic beauty. “On The Way” thrashes with punk energy juxtaposed by J’s laconic vocal delivery and reems of devastating hooks. Murph’s drumming is frantic, precise and vital.
New facades to Mascis’ songcraft edge through on Where You Been. The lazy, melodic drawl of “Not The Same” nods its hat to Neil Young. Its dramatic, widescreen cinematic feel ebbs and flows throughout its runtime. “Get Me,” one of the album’s standout tracks, is a simple but perfect country strum rocketed to the heavens by wave after wave of wracked, ecstatic guitar soloing.
“Hide” crashes and gallops with a chaotic urgency, while “Goin’ Home,” a real gem, has an acoustic guitar-driven crescendo that resonates with bittersweet nostalgia. “I Ain’t Sayin'” ends the album with a surge of noisy vitality.
Where You Been proved that the second chapter of Dinosaur Jr’s career was equally entertaining as the first. J Mascis and Dinosaur Jr may have evaded any true Nevermind-esque commercial crossover. But with this ragged masterpiece, one of rock’s best-kept secrets continued to cement itself into the annals of American alternative rock history as forefathers and pioneers. “Where You Been” finds them in their prime.