Review Summary: J Mascis chooses to fade away, leaving behind a compelling set of sad, underrated tracks
Digging through the vast archives of stuff on Youtube, one can eventually uncover a section of Recovery from October 4th 1997. The most annoying TV host I have ever seen yells an introduction, making numerous mistakes, then the crowd cheers on command, looking just about everywhere but the little podium where the guest of the night is located. A man, brownish hair starting to turn gray, huge spectacles, silly cowboy hat, and a battered and slightly out of tune acoustic in his lap. He proceeds to play two pretty tunes (“Never Bought It” and “Sure Not Over You”) in bare yet effective, single acoustic guitar arrangements, seemingly ignoring the ridiculous setting. Yep, that's J Mascis alright... who'd have thought that the very same man had singles placing high in U.S. Modern Rock charts a few years back?
Well, yes, indeed, Dinosaur Jr. did have a bit of mainstream recognition around 1993 and 1994. However, the year is 1997 now, and the public eye moved away from the band more less completely. Now it doesn't seem like Mascis wants it back either – the band's two previous offerings were about as close to selling out as Dinosaur Jr. ever got, with the tunes being pretty radio-friendly. However, J's characteristic whiny voice and overindulgent guitar soloing (especially evident on Where You Been) kept the band apart from the rest of the pack, more on the sidelines. Fortunately, Mascis eventually realized that his place isn't on the top of the charts, and decided to stop attempting to worm his way up there. Pity he only came to his senses after the downright bland Without A Sound, though...
Now, for a question – how long could it, in your opinion, take to signalize to the listener that the record they're currently perusing is far from the dead ended road to paper stardom? Two songs? One? Well, this record manages to accomplish it even before the vocals come in. The stellar opener “I Don't Think” kicks off with a jagged, dotted rhythm riff that very successfully reassures the album owner that this is by no means Without A Sound II. The tune is about as heavy as Mascis got since the days of the quasi-metal “Mountain Man”... as the song progresses, one gets to hear additional simple, yet pleasantly surprising rhythmic solutions, and J's characteristic falsetto (he's done it a bit on previous records, usually as backing vocals, but here it gets to shine in its full glory) before culminating in a surprisingly catchy, infectious chorus. Props for opening the record with a kicking track that lets the listener know what he's (not) up for.
Do not be misled, though – Hand It Over isn't all about letting the listener know just how odd can Mascis get. He does experiment, but he never sacrifices musical content in the name of making something “tastefully strange”. The unexpected touches in some tunes help them grow... the off-the-wall trumpet in “I'm Insane” is a fun addition, and makes the otherwise mediocre tune slightly better. The track right after it, “Can't We Move This”, another falsetto-driven, toe-tapping rocker, features splashes of strings towards the end that give the song a new dimension. Mascis has shown the tendency to have some slightly unexpected elements in his arrangements (“What Else Is New” from Where You Been features timpani in the outro), but here these little bits really shine and make the music sound fresh.
What would freshness alone do if there was no interesting content to spiff up, though? The album features some of Mascis's strongest and most consistent songwriting to date. There's the occasional half-baked tidbit (“Nothin's Goin' On” becomes way too slacker and flat, and “I Know Yer Insane” is just not good), but for the most part the tunes are really strong. Right after the mentioned opening track, the listener is treated to “Never Bought It”, a beautiful little ballad nodding to the previous song with its staccato intro before going its own way with the subtle guitar arpeggios and hooking mellotron flute melody. The song embraces you in its softness after the rough opener, but there's something about it that was missing from the calmer tunes on the previous two CDs. Little wonder it was picked as one of the two tunes for the acoustic song that fateful night. Another solid offering would be the haunting “Loaded”, which just can't be described in words. The tune may not appeal to the listener upon the first few tries, since it's definitely specific, but once it grabs a hold of you it's there to stay.
The second track J decided to play on Recovery was “Sure Not Over You”. This is the one most addicting track on the record – the bittersweet vocal melody and insanely wonderful guitar line interact perfectly, creating something breathtakingly pretty and one of a kind. J has written catchier songs, livelier songs, but this is the finest composition-wise... the chord progressions are flawless, the way they're played is simultaneously simplistic and intricate, the little guitar fills are placed perfectly and make the song flow even better, some sort of unidentifiable tension is discreetly constructed, subconsciously keeping the listener there (as if subconscious keeping is needed when the conscious element of the track hooks you more than sufficiently). And those lyrics... “All the love in life has gotta count for something, right?”... This track makes me proud I am a Dinosaur Jr. fan.
The record feels sad throughout. This is another contrast to the happy Without A Sound, where flat and inoffensive major-rich chord progressions reigned supreme. However, Hand It Over's sadness isn't overwhelming in any way... it's just there, passively, in the back, reminding you not to become too happy as you listen to the stuff. The closest to outright despair you get on here would be “Alone” - an eight minute mammoth of a track with tons of wailing fuzzy soloing and a depressive falsetto soaring over it all. You either get it or you don't. It got me. Didn't even give me time to consider it, really... take the “trademark” Mascis C7+ chord utilized as the peak of a really sad vamp, and then add some mind-numbing guitar noodling with a tone to die for. And we haven't even reached the first verse! Speaking of guitar leads, this record has a bunch of really respectful solos. J's always been a great guitarist with innate talent (You're Living All Over Me was recorded four years after he picked up the guitar... need I say more?), and he handles the instrument really well on here. The leads aren't as flamboyant and all over the place like they used to be on Where You Been, but they remain outright fantastic and help tip some uncertain songs onto the good side of the heap (“Mick”, anyone?).
There's one song on here that feels oddly happy at first... “Gettin' Rough” is a good natured banjo-driven (yes, you read correctly. Banjo driven) tune towards the end of the record... but the impression gets shattered the moment you start paying attention to the lyrics. Mascis is waving goodbye, acknowledging the fact that he's dropping the Dinosaur Jr. moniker, that he's walked the path. He couldn't have known that eight years later he'd get back together with his old band mates, do a round of scorching reunion shows and drop a bomb of a comeback record. In 1997, he chose to fade away...
The fading was successful – there was seldom little to no promotion for the record, one measly single (“I'm Insane”), and a sound greatly different than the previous two albums managed to finalize the process of extracting Dinosaur Jr. from the mainstream. It's a mighty fine record though, a sort of manifesto that J is going back to the side where his place is, and he shall leave the Dinosaur Jr. name behind... all while being a collection of really fine songs with relatively few duds. Once Hand It Over got released, Mascis and his labels parted ways due to lack of interest from either side, and the guitarist released two albums under the moniker of J Mascis And The Fog before the Dinosaur Jr. reunion in 2005.