July 31, 2009
How do you know if a band has been around too long? How do you know whether the latest rock ’n’ roll reunion is the true rebirth of magic or just another casino-circuit wonder? As this thing called rock lurches onward through its second half-century, these questions will arise more and more.
Two recently released albums by reconstituted rock groups might provide some insight into these issues. The latest efforts by Dinosaur Jr. and the newest incarnation of the New York Dolls show the pitfalls and the potential power of rock ’n’ roll longevity.
First the good news.
My initial thought upon hearing Dinosaur Jr.’s Farm was that these guys shouldn’t really still be sounding this great. But, it looks as if the reunion of J. Mascis and Lou Barlow a couple of years ago on their big comeback album Beyond was no fluke.
Truthfully, I should have known that was the case. When I saw the resurrected Dinosaur Jr. at the Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago last year, they were indeed mighty and — Mascis’ gray hair notwithstanding — they blew away most of the younger musicians. The band sounded far more vital than when I saw the 1993 version of Dinosaur Jr. — then at its commercial peak — at Lollapalooza.
A little background: Dinosaur Jr. started out in the mid-’80s when Mascis and Barlow were in high school in Amherst, Massachusetts. But by the end of the decade, the boyhood chums parted ways. Barlow went on to form Sebadoh, a highly respected indie band. Mascis carried on with Dinosaur, signing with a major label and, with his Neil-Young-Is-God guitar studsmanship, rode the crest of the grunge era.
While it lasted. Both Dinosaur Jr. and Sebadoh eventually flamed out. Mascis tried to carry on with a band called The Fog — a trio, centered around Mascis’ stormy guitar solos, which sounded pretty similar to Dino Jr. But hardly anyone paid attention.
Then in 2007, Mascis and Barlow apparently kissed and made up. With longtime Dino drummer Murph, they recorded Beyond, which was the best thing any of them had done in years. But if anything, Farm is even better than Beyond. Not only are they sounding strong as ever, Mascis and Barlow sound as if they actually are having a great time playing with each other.
Mascis remains the dominant frontman/songwriter, penning all but two of the tunes here and taking his trademark long, feedback-laden solos. But the sound is clearly a group effort. There’s frantic joy in all the songs here. My favorites are the upbeat opening cut “Pieces” and the epic “Said the People,” which starts out slow before building to epic Dinosaur Jr. fury by the end of the nearly eight-minute track.
But if the new/old Dinosaur Jr. is an example of the positive potential of the rock reunion, the new album by the New York Dolls — ’Cause I Sez So — helps make the argument that some iconic bands shouldn’t take the chance of messing with their reputations. About halfway through my first listen to this album, a terrible realization occurred. Most of this stuff would fit in just fine on any crappy classic rock station.
Please, God, no!
Back in the early ’70s the Dolls — like The Velvet Underground and The Stooges before them — were one of the primal influences on what would later be known as punk rock. They were loud and raunchy and proudly decadent — part Rolling Stones, part Shangri-Las.
Of course, they wouldn’t last long. The title of their second album summed it up: Too Much Too Soon. That was 1974. The band crumbled not long after that. The band wouldn’t release an album of new material (One Day It Will Please Us to Remember Even This) for another 32 years. By that time only two original members were still alive — singer David Johansen and guitarist Syl Sylvain.
(Note for Dolls fans: If you haven’t already seen the documentary New York Doll, which concerns the later years and death of original Dolls bassist Arthur “Killer” Kane, get thee to a video store — or at least try Netflix. It’s one of the most touching rock bios I’ve ever seen.)
This is actually the third album by the latest version of the Dolls. Last year, there was Live at the Fillmore East December 28 & 29, 2007, a concert album consisting of all ’70s-era Dolls tunes except for a couple of tunes from One Day It Will Please Us. While that one was hardly an essential work, it showed the band in great form, ripping through the old “hits” with spirit and aplomb.
Unfortunately very little of that energy is evident on ’Cause I Sez So. Maybe producer Todd Rundgren — who also produced the first Dolls album — is partly to blame for this. There are just too many slow tunes, Springsteenish folk-rocky anthems, and faux-teenage ballads here.
Fortunately, there’s a handful of tracks in which you’ll find the old Dolls spirit fully intact. The title track is pretty rocking. Even better is “This Is Ridiculous,” a swampy blues with a delightfully obnoxious guitar hook. And they saved their best for last with “Exorcism of Despair.” It’s tough and snarling, fully Dolls-worthy.
But if the New York Dolls are going to continue, they’d better have an exorcism of mediocrity.