For my first album, I thought I would take a look at one that has been with me personally for a long time. I can recall several muggy, smoky New Jersey summers through college, outside with my buddies or working at the grocery store, dipping out to my car on breaks to have another smoke... It was a steamy, muggy place, and a turbulent, confusing time, nearing the edge of being "an adult". And it seems like every memory is covered in the haze of smoke alongside a hot summer's day.
Without a Sound, to me, sounds exactly the way those times felt. Then, the music didn't change to fit the time, as it often does; life changed itself to fit the album. But the humidity, the energy, the sweat, the emotions, the sheer innocent uncleanliness of it all is what seeps from every pore of this album.
I've heard a bit of flack for Without a Sound. It seems most people prefer the heavier, harder side of Dinosaur Jr., and I don't blame them. Songs like Pick Me Up or I Don't Want to Go There blow half the tracks off Without a Sound out of the water for sure. But I've never felt as captivated and enthralled by any Dino Jr. album before or since. Mascis's singing is, as always, a sort of elderly, grumbling croon stuck somewhere between adolescent and ancient, with intense underlying emotion that seems to be actively refusing to come to the surface. Like there's so much stuck inside him and he just can't get it to come out—it only comes out in his lyrics.
Lyrically, Without a Sound is sparse—most of their work is. But Mascis is great at doing a lot with only a little, and even the shortest, most terse of phrases provoke strong emotions when they come packaged with his voice: From Feel the Pain's intro ("I feel the pain of everyone / then I feel nothing") to Mind Glow ("It's hard to admit anything / I'm sorry for the weight I bring / I'll do whatever's necessary / To make your mind glow soft") to the closing track, Over Your Shoulder ("You're gone / But it can't be wrong / You're gone / Can't be for long")—it may not seem like much here, but the lines have so much raw emotion behind them when they are sung that they are made memorable simply through their presentation. The album utilizes distortion fairly heavily, and much of the vocals and instrumentation is also washed out. The production value seems to be on the lower side, which would make sense given the release year and band's popularity, and that slight graininess only adds to the atmosphere.
The opening track, Feel the Pain, is a great example in back-and-forth, and upon listen you will see that many of Dino Jr.'s later works echo this sound somewhat. Outta Hand is a solemn, but almost romantic tune with some powerful little crescendos throughout. The album concludes with a spectacular three-hitter: On the Brink, with a powerful chorus and beautiful interaction between harsher and gentler sounds; Seemed Like the Thing to Do, a surprising ballad of sorts with a lonely, repetitive guitar riff that somehow doesn't get out; and finally Over Your Shoulder, an ultra-distorted closer with some supremely emotional guitar work, alongside a beautiful ebb and flow of sound that simply takes you away. That closer totally knocks it out of the park on this album, which always keeps me coming back, too.
And let's not forget the drum work, either—songs like On the Brink have some fairly interesting rhythms considering the genre. The drums are washed out and muted but it really adds to the album's tight, cohesive, muted image. I feel like I see some classic rock influences there, but I could be mistaken.
In terms of accessibility, this album is fairly accessible, but is nowhere near the accessibility of a top 40 hit. I would place it somewhere a bit below Radiohead in terms of accessibility, although I think Feel the Pain, Outta Hand and possibly Over Your Shoulder might appeal to more people. Although Dino Jr. usually sticks to one style of music, this album does branch out a bit and there are a few heavier tracks as well as a few lighter ones, so it's a little more interesting than their other albums, even if it is not quite as polished.
If I were to rate this album from a personal perspective, it would place significantly higher than if I were to rate it with a less biased viewpoint. Without a Sound is spectacular at what it does, but in the grand scheme of music it is nothing earth-shattering - simply Dino Jr. exploring the area around what "Dino Jr." meant up to that point. There are a few stand-out 5/5 tracks for sure, but there are certainly some less-memorable ones. While not a single track on this album is bad, some do fall below the sheer intensity of tracks like Over Your Shoulder, and so this album gets a pretty solid 3.5. Without a Sound is perfect if you're an alt-rock fan or looking to expand your Dino Jr. horizons. It's not by any means a bad album, but I don't think it's a spectacular entry for a newcomer to the genre—though it does have (and deserve) its niche.