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Review: Dinosaur Jr. – I Bet on Sky
Published on September 10th, 2012 | Theo Gorst
One could forever analyze the inter-band relationships within Dinosaur Jr., and still the band’s continued existence would remain a mystery. Bizarrely unlike many reformed bands the trio make little effort to hide the tensions that still exist; speaking only last month Lou Barlow asserted, “I think J [Mascis] doesn’t like me.” Indeed three albums into their reunion it’s interesting to see how Mascis’s continued animosity towards Barlow now manifests itself on record.
What makes I Bet On Sky such an interesting listen are the uncertainties that arise out of the certainties. While it’s certain that Barlow and Mascis’s relationship is one characterized by antipathy, what’s uncertain is how the trio – with original drummer Murph included – managed to create a record that sounds more stable than any Dinosaur Jr. release before it.
Traditionally the band, in any of their various incarnations, have opened with a track that feels like a statement (“Freakscene”, “Feel the Pain” and “Little Fury Things”) and yet “Don’t Pretend You Didn’t Know” abstains from joining such illustrious company, instead sounding as business-as-usual as is possible for indie-rock’s most dysfunctional band. Forgoing the aggression of previous Dinosaur Jr. openers, “Don’t Pretend You Didn’t Know” instead falls straight into an easy groove created by a stuttering guitar line and a steady drum beat courtesy of Murph. While the chorus’s layered vocals ride atop a customary wall of distortion, Mascis’s production emphasises not noise but melody.
Sonically the band have certainly matured from the ‘aural assaults’ of their late ’80s output, and so have the lyrics. Mascis’s vocals now sound world-weary and fractured in contrast to the detached disinterest his laconic drawl once conveyed. Cracking as if unable to stand the emotional weight of “Don’t Pretend You Didn’t Know”, his vocals repeat “waiting” before segueing into an outro. If this is a statement it sounds like a declaration of change and a desire not to meet expectations.
However “Watch the Corners”, the first single to be released and second track on the album, sounds like an opener. It weds the clarity and richness of their new production to the kind of impossibly heavy despair that characterised Bug, and does so magnificently: heavy metallic riffs smash against a spiraling drum beat until the familiar anguish of a J Mascis solo terrifically cries out.
Speaking about the LP, Barlow said that elements of Mascis’s solo acoustic record Several Shades of Why had informed many of the tracks. Over the album’s ten songs this is certainly audible, and is deployed with varying success: the acoustic break on the middle eight of “Watch The Corners” demonstrates a deftness of touch that serves as a welcome addition to the band’s emotional pallet. Not so welcome however is the way in which they readily sink into the comfort of a mid-paced number; being a folk album, Several Shades of Why benefited from such tenderness, yet one doesn’t expect the same from a band who made their name demonstrating explosive power.
Pleasant though they may be, “Stick A Toe In” and “What Was That” pass by unspectacularly, unlike the two terrific Lou Barlow efforts “Rude” and “Recognition”. The former buzzes by with the customary sharpness of a Bakesale-era Sebadoh guitar line, while the latter’s “I wanna hear the sound of recognition” feels like a knowing nod to Mascis.
Though I Bet On Sky often meanders into overly safe territory sonically, lyrically it strikes as the most candid work the band have produced to date, occasionally creating a surprising disconnect in quality between music and words. On “Watch the Corners” Mascis reveals he has “no-one to confide in”, while on “Almost Fare” he alludes to not having reached his desired location, asking “What should I do? / What should I give?”. On “Rude” Barlow sings “I wish I didn’t care”, living up to his moniker of “the most sensitive boy in indie rock”.
What’s curious about I Bet on Sky is how it feels like a band mellowing in spite of their still hostile relations. Perhaps it’s too much to ask for a repeat of the explosive power heard on You’re Living All Over Me, but that the band forgo the urgency demonstrated on Farm is slightly disappointing, only “Pierce the Morning Rain” possessing the unpredictable volatility of early Dinosaur Jr. recordings.
Tension has always existed within the band and beforehand this felt key to unlocking said volatile unpredictability; though it clearly still exists, it feels on I Bet on Sky as if they’ve learnt to deal with it, which surprisingly is a bit of a shame.
Rocksucker says: Three Quails out of Five!
I Bet on Sky will be released on 18th September through [PIAS] Recordings. For more information please visit www.dinosaurjr.com