Sonic Youth, Black Flag, Minutemen, Meat Puppets, Hüsker Dü. It’s safe to say that SST Records had the strongest lineup of the late 80s. These bands pushed the volume and intensity of guitar-rock to earsplitting heights, but none of them could quite pull of the face-melting, fuzz-drenched guitar freak-outs of SST label mates Dinosaur Jr.’s own J Mascis. After rising to the pinnacle of slacker apathy early in life, Mascis rounded up his high school buddies Lou Barlow and Murph to form Dinosaur Jr. in Amherst, Massachusetts. The original Dino Jr. lineup released three noisy and abrasive albums before clashing personalities split the trio. Bug, their last release before Barlow’s departure, stands toe-to-toe with 1987’s You’re Living All Over Me as early Dino Jr.’s high point, combing their most ferocious playing with surprisingly catchy melodies.
While You’re Living All Over Me opened with brutally painful guitar and screamed vocals, Bug’s opener, “Freak Scene,” starts with an instantly accessible riff and never veers into noisy territory. It’s obvious that Mascis chose to expand his repertoire between albums, and with this new direction he stumbled on a formula that made Dino Jr.’s music highly listenable without compromising their noise-punk roots.
More than 20 years later, Bug still has one of the strongest back halves of any indie rock record. With “Pond Song,” Mascis finally makes good on what he hinted at earlier in the record with a perfect combination of jangly guitar and tight melodies. It sounds like Doug Martsch was listening, because “Pond Song” has many elements that latter became Built To Spill staples. “Budge” speeds things up, sounding closer to straight punk than Dino Jr. usually comes, and has some great harmony singing from Lou and J. The album closer, “Don’t,” is a totally different monster than any other song on Bug or in the band’s lager catalog. The song is pure madness, with Mascis coaxing waves of feedback from his guitar and Barlow bellowing with such rage that he coughed blood after the recording session. If that’s not hardcore, I’m not sure what is.
After Bug, Barlow left to explore the world of lo-fi with the near equally awesome Sebadoh, and Murph and J stuck out a few more albums before J made Dino Jr. a solo project. With each subsequent release, the quality dropped off until 1997 when even J decided to call Dinosaur Jr. quits. With their reunion in 2005, the subsequent release of two solid new albums, and the recent reissue of their first three albums, Dinosaur Jr. is deservedly relevant again.