(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Recording review - Dinosaur Jr., I Bet on Sky (2012)

Philosophical  slacker ambivalence and cleansing noise

Dinosaur Jr.’s sometime rocky history has had its share of ego and anger. The original lineup split over control issues. Eventually, J. Mascis recorded a couple of effectively solo albums as Dinosaur Jr. After he retired the name, Dinosaur Jr. was just another old band that informed the grunge and alt rock scenes of the ‘90s.

When the band reformed with the original lineup in 2005 (and recorded in 2007), it was a major surprise, not only because the band seemed to have worked through their issues but more because their sound was closer to the later era Dinosaur Jr. work that Mascis developed without Lou Barlow and Murph. This second round has proven to be a stronger artistic partnership with two albums, Beyond (2007) and Farm (2009), that stand up well to the band’s earlier work.

On I Bet on Sky, Dinosaur Jr. continues this trend, offering up an album of grungy fun that still delivers the cathartic, cleansing noise that defines their sound. They hit hard right from the start. Don’t Pretend You Didn’t Know shows off the chemistry between Barlow’s bass and Mascis’ guitar. It’s distorted, but enough edges are worn away to leave a touch of Blue Öyster Cult’s smooth gloom. It’s a rich, full sound. The bridge kicks up the energy to hail back to the hard rocking ‘90s. The only real surprise is the light touch of piano comping that lurks around the changes. Mascis follows his usual melodic style on the solo, streaming the notes in a smooth, meandering flow.

If Don’t Pretend You Didn’t Know is a strong opener, Watch the Corners is a powerful followup. The dark, chunka-chunk intro sets a metal tone. The grinding distortion is sweet and cathartic. Mascis’ vocals, which often drone, sound weary, almost fatalistic:

I want you to be with us
And in time there’s no forgiveness
And the plan was set in stone long ago
There’s never not a time not to know
Can I run? But she’ll be there
Disappear, it’s never fair
The full sound during the singing drops back to repeat the intro crunch. In the past, J Mascis was compared to Neil Young, largely based on his vocal delivery, but the ballsy solo captures Young’s hard rocking guitar style. It shamelessly salutes the classic ‘70s guitar lead. Reaching for “epic”, this is an ideal sample of what makes Dinosaur Jr, so right. Murph nails the beat, but his fills stumble forward in a headlong rush. Barlow’s bass grounds the repetition and Mascis’ guitar channels a head full of frustration that his vocals never seem to deliver.

Despite the likely influence Dinosaur Jr. had on Nirvana, J Mascis is really the antithesis of Kurt Cobain. They share a certain slacker ambivalence, but where Cobain was tormented and bleeding, Mascis remains philosophical and detached. That comes through on Almost Fare. The backing music’s descending line has a touch of Flaming Lips, but the vocals immediately summon Nirvana’s Come As You Are. The dynamic shifts from soft to loud match either band’s style, but Mascis voice lack’s Cobain’s intensity. He may sing, “Come with me, come with me”, but he’s okay if you don’t.

These first three songs set the tone for all of I Bet on Sky. Despite some weaker songs, like the low-fi, simple romp of Rude or See It On Your Side, which relies too much Neil Young’s Cortez the Killer, I Bet on Sky is a strong offering for a band that rose from the dead with a renewed intensity.

(This review first appeared in Spectrum Culture)

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