By the time of Dinosaur Jr.'s third major-label album, 1994's Without a Sound, the guitar rock landscape was changing, and the band was too. Grunge was a parody of itself, most of the bands who had been signed in the post-Nirvana rush were proven failures, and loud guitars seemed passé. Meanwhile, Murph was gone from the Dinosaur lineup, leaving J Mascis and Mike Johnson to make this transitional album by themselves. The core of the record is built on blown-out guitar-led rockers cast from the classic Mascis mold, with J powerfully handling the drums and destroying speakers with solos and gnarly sludge. His work on the opening "Feel the Pain" is a clinic on how to balance different guitar sounds and tones into a harmonious whole, the solo on "Even You" is wild even by Mascis' standards, and his trademark wandering playing style (displayed magically on "Over Your Shoulder") is in full effect throughout. He and Johnson team up to make some strong-as-cement, heavy-as-a-Miami-summer-night tunes; half the album or more stands shoulder to shoulder with previous work, especially "Feel the Pain," which is destined to be on side one of their eventual greatest-hits collections.
Where the album surprises and impresses is on the tracks where J dials down the frantic soloing and pounding chords to delve into sounds that are softer and quietly introspective. The album's second track is the first hint that things are going to be a little different. "I Don't Think So" is a rambling, lovelorn country-rock ballad made supersonic by J's guitar playing and turned blue by his devastatingly sad lyrics. "Outta Hand" is a beautiful acoustic ballad with pianos and synth strings that somehow feels as twisted and torn as any of the group's noise-wracked efforts. The arrangement puts J's cracked vocals right at the front, and he carries the song with a tender grace that few would have imagined at the start of Dinosaur Jr.'s career. "Seemed Like the Thing to Do" is another scaled-down beauty that features lovely guitar lines and more from the (shattered) heart vocals. These songs give the band a new dimension and if they, plus the few songs that trade on layered guitars and nimble melodies instead of gobs of noise, make it seem like the band is getting softer or less interesting, it couldn't be further from the truth. On Without a Sound, J is struggling with many things -- personal sadness, insecurity regarding the band's future, a shifting musical climate -- but the one thing that remains rock solid is his guitar playing and ability to write songs that break a heart as easily as they break guitar strings. It may not be the best Dinosaur album or the most exciting, either, but there's enough growth, tenderness, and good old guitar mangling here to make it well worth exploring.