Dinosaur Jr.’s therapist should step forward and accept some hearty congratulations. This is a band whose early camaraderie had so deteriorated by the late 80s that they were literally beating each other up on stage. When bassist Lou Barlow left to focus his efforts on his other band, Sebadoh, he made no secret about his dislike for his former band mate, frontman J Mascis (see: the Sebadoh tune “The Freed Pig”). Mascis had also alienated Dino Jr.’s original drummer, Murph, by insisting that he should play drum parts that Mascis had written rather than letting Murph play in his own style.
So when the band’s original lineup reformed in 2005 there was obvious enthusiasm tempered with a resigned no-way-this’ll-last skepticism. Yet here we are, seven years into Dinosaur Jr. v.2, and they’re still cranking out excellent music, including their third post-reunion album I Bet On Sky. It’s instantly recognizable as a Dinosaur Jr. album; the classic rock-meets-Black Sabbath-meets-Crazy Horse guitars and Mascis’ mopey, disinterested vocals are all present and accounted for. But small flourishes creep up to keep things interesting.
Things like a soft piano that floats in at the end of the ass-kicking leadoff track “Don’t Pretend You Didn’t Know.” Mascis adds the acoustic guitar he wielded so well on his 2011 solo album Several Shades of Why to “Almost Fare,” which shifts in tone from a simple, sunny riff to a heavily layered wall of guitars on the bridge. Murph’s drumming comes to the forefront on “I Know It Oh So Well,” a nonstop driving beat to which he playfully adds a cowbell, giving the end of the song a “Honkytonk Woman”-esque feel. And Barlow breaks the Mascis monotony by singing on two of I Bet On Sky’s best songs: the country-rock “Rode,” and the considerably harder “Recognition,” a blistering pile of distorted bar chord awesomeness that might be the most Black Sabbath sounding tune on the record.
Overall, however, I Bet On Sky doesn’t break much new ground, nor would Dino Jr.’s fans want it to. The leadoff single “Watch the Corners” starts with a crunchy one-chord intro before finding its way to the melodic noise that Mascis excels at. At 46, Mascis’ voice has never sounded better, inasmuch as a voice that doesn’t actually sing as much as mumble with style can sound better. He manages to convey some emotion on a slower tune, “Stick A Toe In,” which hearkens back to another Dino Jr. song, “I Don’t Wanna Go There,” with Mascis asking in both songs if he’s doomed to “walk alone.” “Pierce the Morning Rain” may cover the most ground in terms of illustrating all Dino Jr. does well; the opening riff throws a nod to Nirvana’s “Scentless Apprentice” before seguing into the kind of jaunty rock found on songs like “The Wagon,” then right back to the Sabbath power chords. It’s a garden of delights.
The album’s closer, “See It On Your Side,” might be the album’s weak spot. Mascis isn’t entirely keen on the Crazy Horse comparisons but the distortion and extended guitar solos that round out the record make the analogy necessary. The song doesn’t remotely detract from an otherwise fantastic record, however, and though all three members of Dinosaur Jr. say the experiment could end at any time, let’s hope they stay in therapy and keep cranking out albums like this.