Dinosaur Jr get better with every album
I love this new Dinosaur Jr album, I Bet On Sky. It's a new release - out at the end of last week - but I've been lucky to have a secret link to it for a few weeks. I've spent a bit of time with it. Since 2007 Dinosaur Jr has returned to the world of releasing new albums - following the reunion tour where they played one of their best albums, You're Living All Over Me in its entirety.
I've followed Dinosaur Jr for a long time now. It was Green Mind that first hooked me in. From there I travelled back to the original trio, stayed with the band when it was essentially just a J Mascis vehicle. I was sad when, after 1997's Hand It Over, the band split up. At that point it was really just J but it was still the band to me. My university years were soundtracked, in part, by Green Mind and Where You Been and Without A Sound and Hand It Over. I loved Hand It Over, especially that big doom-drenched song, Alone.
The band broke up though and I had the reissued early trio of albums to fall for, Dinosaur, You're Living All Over Me and Bug.
And then there was Lou Barlow's many careers - his solo albums, Folk Implosion, Sebadoh...
So there was plenty to get on with. I even bought the J Mascis solo acoustic live album, Martin + Me because it was given a half-star review; a sublimely negative review. That made me want to hear it. And though I can see where that reviewer was coming from, it's a voice that, when exposed like that, is one only a mother could love I still liked that album a lot; played it often. (I really like the sloppy cover of The Boy With The Thorn In His Side, prefer it to the original by The Smiths).
News that Dinosaur Jr were reforming - the original trio, the core group, Mascis, Barlow and drummer Murph - was treated as good news; good enough. But I wasn't all that excited. I figured it was a lazy cash-in. But I wanted to see the band perform live - because I was disappointed with the one Dinosaur Jr gig I did see (University, Student Union Hall, 1995, on the back of the Without A Sound album). I guess I just had too much riding on it at the time. I was super-excited about seeing Dinosaur Jr then. It was probably a better show than how I remember it. But I'd like a second chance at seeing them live. I've seen J Mascis solo a couple of times and that was good. But I would like to see/hear the full noise version of so many of those songs live again.
And then I realised something. I had a bit of a clue to this with 2009's Farm - but it's been confirmed with I Bet On Sky: Dinosaur Jr's reunion has been creatively/artistically successful. It is not just a money-grab reunion; not just a trot around the blocks to play the hits.
When Beyond was released in 2007 it had a weight of expectation holding it down. This was not only the first new album to carry the Dinosaur Jr tag in a decade. It was the first Dino J album with the original trio, the real Dinosaur Jr, in nearly 20 years.
In typical J Mascis fashion that appeared to be of no interest, it was simply shrugged off and he and the rhythm section made some noise.
Beyond is a good record - it's a good continuation/trace-around of the earlier sound. But Farm was better.
I Bet On Sky is better yet.
Here we have the band playing a set of great rock songs. Rock songs that could also be pop songs. The opener, Don't Pretend You Didn't Know, is all at once another example of Dinosaur Jr following a straight line, sticking to the uncomplicated mess of not-quite-grunge and used-to-be-hardcore, and it feels new, fresh.
I Bet On Sky has Mascis toning down the Neil Young guitar workouts - he presumably got them out of his system on the subdued and gorgeous Several Shades Of Why (his nearly-perfect solo album that slipped under the radar somewhat last year; no doubt in exactly the way he wanted).
But there will always be blasts of guitar - it's just not as thudding and overt on this album. At least not to start with. There are shades. There's delay from the inevitable - but there is still the inevitable. There are J Mascis solos that squall and roll and duck and dive and sound like the found sounds that only J can conjure.
And where Farm continued on the sound of Dinosaur Jr doing elongated bombast - the Crazy Horse wig outs - this is shorter, sharper, taut and trim. There are songs that take the guitar out for a stroll but there are also reminders of the hardcore scene that Dinosaur Jr was almost part of. I say almost because through virtue of continuing on and reworking a version of their own unique sound Dinosaur Jr sits now outside of any genre. An indie touchstone, sure, but now it's just a bunch of older guys jamming. Before they were young. There's really nothing all that indie about that. And it was never quite grunge and hardcore was more an ethos and an era than a style and sound - at least as far as Dinosaur Jr's involvement anyway.
So here, with Watch The Corners you'll get a monster riff - instantly identifiable as Dinosaur Jr, but there's just a hint of humour in the feel of this album. Not the doom and gloom of Hand It Over, not the intensity of Farm and before that You're Living All Over Me. Okay, it's more a case of a lightening up than humour.
And later there are two songs by Barlow - Rude and Recognition. To some these will be hard to take at first. To others they'll be the immediate standouts - I like them. And I like the contrast that they offer, but I was sold on this album straight away; hooked from the first listen.
Perhaps remarkably, as this is not often the case when you're sold on something instantly, it's continued to improve for me with every listen. Both a grower and an instant hit then. The perfect kind of album - and in the scheme of things an absolute rarity.
And I know I'll get some people taking this the wrong way, arguing with passion for You're Living All Over Me or Bug or maybe even Green Mind or Where You Been but I really believe that Dinosaur Jr's albums not only all get better with time, they improve individually in order of chronology. The band's music - laid out in order, a continuum, and very obviously that - sees each album rubbing out the one before and then re-drawing it to look roughly the same but with the benefit of just a bit more experience.
So, in a way, I've just called I Bet On Sky the band's best album. And, in a way, I completely believe that.
I also think Dinosaur Jr has subverted its own sound, we're told - always - that this is a band with one setting, one style, one sound. But they feel fresher now in so many ways; this reunion phase is not just a band paying tribute to itself - this is another set of great, vital music. It's funny to think that the animosity, the acrimony has simply been swept under the rug and the old rockers are rocking on. Funnier still to think that by carrying on, by just picking up where they left off they have sidestepped any feeling of redundancy in that very move.
Anything from I Bet On Sky would sound great on the radio; would sound more urgent, more exciting, sharper, than any other rock music I've heard in 2012. These guys might get written off by many as being a lazy-formula band; I hear them as a group bursting and brimming with ideas and great songs.
And I really would love to see them live - especially with the current material so strong.
You can check out the whole album here. Take a listen. What do you think?
Have you heard I Bet On Sky already? What do you think? And are you a Dinosaur Jr fan? Do you think they peaked when the original trio recorded its first three albums? Were you a fan of where J took the band and sound on his own? Or have you hung in there for this reunion phase? And do you agree that Dinosaur Jr are one of very few bands that are actually making it work the second time around, not just coasting; not resting on their laurels? Or could you never stand the sound and songs from this band?
I Bet On Sky will be high on my list of the best albums released this year. And though I've never given up listening to Dinosaur Jr I am enjoying playing this album, skipping back to Farm and then going further back, to Hand It Over, Where You Been and You're Living All Over Me.
So what do you think of Dinosaur Jr? And in particular the band's return to releasing albums across the last half-decade?