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LIVE REPORT: Dinosaur Jr
Damien Morris , February 19th, 2013 06:55

Damien Morris catches Dinosaur Jr set at the Electric Ballroom, Camden, and finds them as powerful as ever.

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Dino Jr live shot by Shot2bits.net

So many indie bands use a viscous soup of sound to shield their lead singer's vocal shortcomings, but Dinosaur Jr are so much better than that. Their singular strength has long been J Mascis' remarkable one man duet, a kiss-chase between his horizontal yet powerful voice and that breathtakingly querulous lead guitar. Like the Jesus and Mary Chain and My Bloody Valentine, two of the three bands Mascis shared headline duties with during 1992's ersatz-Lollapalooza Rollercoaster tour, the genius of Dinosaur Jr lies in the glimpse of gorgeous melody in a fog of feedback, finding orchids amongst the nettles.

Those three Rollercoaster acts – a heavily-soused, pre-Parklife Blur being the fourth – were at the peak of their success and influence between 1987 and 1992, and all four came to some sort of dead end in the subsequent decade. The distortion and discord that formed their soundworld onstage became the root notes of their personal relationships, and although all four reformed in the last seven years, it's Dinosaur Jr who went back to work.

Blur, the Mary Chain and the Valentines have managed just over a dozen new songs between them in the last ten years, whilst Dinosaur are already three albums into their post-extinction career. Whilst their best new songs may not be as giddily euphoric or violently addictive as 20 years ago, tonight's setlist hops from the trio's previous band Deep Wound to their Dinosaur debut through most of the nine subsequent Jr albums without any substantial drop in quality or concession to age.

It's still a breathlessly heavy noise the trio make, whether it's the endless series of sugar rushes of 'Freak Scene' or the more recent 'Crumble', which is as quiet and mournful as it is possible to be while still sounding like a 20-wheeler truck smashing into a skidding aeroplane.

These are not difficult songs to sing or remember. Rearranged for John Lewis, the keening, rapturous 'Lung' might be a more accessible creature if it didn't consist of the sole, repeated lyric "nowhere to collapse a lung/breathes a doubt in everyone".

'The Wagon' and 'Start Chopping', released during Lou Barlow's long absence from the band, particularly sound far less trebly and far more ruck-ready than on record. The synths, pianos and string quartets which adorn the band's albums from Where You Been onwards aren't even gestured at. They've probably been mugged outside the venue by Barlow's pint-spilling bass, battered back to Mornington Crescent by Murph's brutal drums.

Along with the tension between the melody and dissonance, it's the way the headspinning physicality of Dinosaur's elephantine sound plays off against the uncertainty of Mascis' lyrics and reticent vocals which creates such a pleasing contrast. If their music is a ! then the lead singer's vocal contribution is more of a … or a ? You know he is definitely feeling something, but what that something is, or how he wants us to feel about how he feels, never quite resolves into tangible emotion.

It's an effect magnified by the way he is still, even after 30 years' practice, unwilling or unable to talk onstage, leaving the ebullient Barlow to tell a shaggy dog story about Murph sailing to gigs across the Atlantic on a giant album cover, or tickle the crowd's tummy with a teasing intro to a still-searing cut through the Cure's 'Just Like Heaven'. J Mascis, like Terminator X, truly speaks with his hands, and his band, now, as always, are needy, insecure, yearning, quietly sad - yet brash, heroically loud and attention-seeking. Perfect teenage attitudes for eternally teenage music.