Dinosaur Jr. have released 10 albums to date, all of which sound like Dinosaur Jr. albums except for one glaring outlier: The group’s 1985 debut, Dinosaur. For those who haven’t heard it, it’s a jarring listen. Still a few years away from finalizing their signature fuzz rock—they hadn’t even settled on J Mascis as the lead singer yet; Lou Barlow was still singing as much as he was at that point—the trio stumbled from one genre experiment to the next, dabbling in Crazy Horse-ish Americana, oddball underground rock and, when all else failed, unmitigated thrash. Clumsy as it can be at times, it remains an exciting listen, not so much because it points to the great band that Dinosaur Jr. became, but because it points to all the great bands that Dinosaur Jr. could’ve become—and, for that matter, a few of the less-than-great ones they could’ve become, too.
Save for the unmistakable echoes of Barlow in the hollow-shell croon of Nick Chiericozzi, one of the band’s two primary singers, The Men don’t sound especially like Dinosaur Jr., at least not any more than they do a half dozen or so other rock bands from the SST heyday era. Nonetheless, Dinosaur Jr.’s wandering debut is the cleanest reference point for The Men’s transitional fourth album, New Moon, which finds the group asking themselves big questions about who they are and exactly what kind of band they want to be—questions that up until now they’ve always had quick answers for. The Men certainly seemed to have a solid sense of themselves on 2011’s awesomely violent Leave Home, and though they branched out a bit on their party-starting 2012 follow-up, Open Your Heart, that album’s country flirtations were just color around the edges of their otherwise full-throttle rock ’n’ roll. On New Moon, however, the country and classic-rock accents have begun to squeeze out the noise. There’s still some punk in New Moon, but it’s no longer the main course.
“Open The Door” announces the transition, kicking off the album with a jaunty, ragtime piano and easy acoustic guitar pickings. It’s the kind of song that just two years ago The Men would have delighted in blowing wide open, but they’re now content to leave it as is. Instead of climaxing with a roar, it just gets prettier as it goes along. A similar acoustic stomp carries through “The Seeds,” while “High and Lonesome” is essentially a five-minute-long twang solo; “Birdsong” sees that twang and doubles down with some harmonica. Even when New Moon works up a sweat, it rocks out in kinder, gentler ways than its predecessors, channeling Neil Young on the hard-strummed “I Saw Her Face” and tempering the punky tempo of “Freaky” with bubblegum melodies (it’s “punk” in the same way that Gin Blossoms’ “Hey Jealousy” is “punk,” which is to say it isn’t really).
The Men cover a lot of ground on New Moon, with consistently solid returns. Even its lightest, breeziest breaks from form feel completely natural. It’s unclear why the band opted to go back to the drawing board when their old wheelhouse was still working so well for them, but a group this restless works best when they’re in transition. With so many good potential paths to choose from, it’s hard to blame The Men for not wanting to settle on just one.