Dinosaur Jr.: The Sky’s The Limit

Music Features

Dinosaur Jr.’s latest album is called I Bet On Sky. To put a different spin on that gambling idea, most fans probably wouldn’t have wagered more than a six-pack that a reunion of the founding line-up would have now outlasted its initial four-year lifespan, let alone produced three of the best records in the overall Dinosaur Jr. catalog.

The tag of America’s most dysfunctional band is still firmly attached to the trio 23 years after guitarist/vocalist J. Mascis fired his high school friend, bassist/vocalist Lou Barlow, and, a few years later, drummer Murph. The ensuing Mascis dictatorship—in large part a reflection of his admitted lack of communication skills—did propel Dinosaur Jr. to the front ranks of the alternative revolution, a rise that peaked in 1993 when Spin declared Mascis no less than God.

But when the spotlight inevitably shifted elsewhere (even though Mascis’ output remained consistent) the perception of Barlow as the soul of Dinosaur Jr. became more ingrained as his songwriting with Sebadoh and the Folk Implosion exposed the psychic wounds he’d suffered during his time in the band. This resulted in a lot of understandably raised eyebrows in 2005 when Mascis, Barlow and Murph announced they were reuniting for gigs, ostensibly to mark the reissue of the first three albums they made together.

No one could fault them for doing it for the money; their contemporaries The Pixies had proven the previous year that a reunion tour didn’t have to trade in on nostalgia. But unlike Black Francis’ adamant position that there would be no new Pixies material, Mascis—to his credit—never slammed the door on the original trio working together again in the studio. Still, the track record of reunited bands recapturing past glories on tape has been traditionally dismal, which made Dinosaur Jr.’s 2007 album Beyond a lot better than it had any right to be.

It was an exceptional case of a band displaying true maturity, not just technically, but in allowing each of their personalities the space to co-exist while preserving their unique chemistry. The sound that Mascis has always described as “ear-bleeding country” was defined two decades earlier on the trio’s landmark second album, You’re Living All Over Me, and it’s still intact on I Bet On Sky. But as predictable as Dinosaur Jr. has become in a lot of ways, the band’s formula remains a potent fix that anyone who cares about rock ‘n’ roll will always crave. Lou Barlow is one of those people, which is why he’s committed to maintaining his role in Dinosaur Jr., an experience that’s proven so positive that he recently revived Sebadoh on a full-time basis as well.

“I love being a bass player in a power trio,” Barlow says bluntly during a break in between Sebadoh’s summer tour and Dinosaur Jr.’s upcoming fall jaunt. “Even when I love a band’s records, like Animal Collective, when I see them live and it’s all shit just coming from boxes, it’s like, what’s the point? Where’s the physicality, where’s the substance? I don’t see anything being more vital than three people on stage playing together—maybe with a singer too. When the lead guitar kicks in and the bass and drums are locked together, that’s the Jimi Hendrix Experience, that’s The Who. There’s nothing better than that.”

The return of group interaction has certainly been a key to Dinosaur Jr.’s rejuvenation, and once more has helped confirm Mascis’ status as the guitar hero of his generation. Although I Bet On Sky gets off to a moody start with the keyboard-laden “Don’t Pretend You Didn’t Know,” by the time the crunchy second number “Watch The Corners” begins, there’s a palpable anticipation of Mascis soaring off on one of his majestic flights. What is slightly unusual is the clutch of mid-tempo songs on the album’s first half, a holdover from Mascis’ 2011 acoustic solo effort, Several Shades of Why. This pace accentuates the jolt of I Bet On Sky’s first Barlow-led number, “Rude,” a blast of punk-folk which, like his previous contributions to Beyond and 2009’s Farm, is the real sign that Dinosaur Jr. is finally embracing its full potential. It would of course be too much to ask for the songwriting to be split 50/50, but Barlow says he’s learned to accept the opportunities he gets, and that Mascis and Murph showed surprising openness on I Bet On Sky, for the first time since the reunion.

“Getting my songs on [Farm] was a fucking nightmare so I had to totally rethink my approach for this one. I had to make every part explicit, so to do that I called my friend Dale Crover from the Melvins to make demos. Having him involved also made J and Murph actually listen to my demos. Usually that’s like waving shiny things in front of them—‘Hey, pay attention to this!’ So it was pretty shocking when halfway through the sessions, J said, ‘Let’s work on one of Lou’s songs.’”

Along with reaching that new level of personal engagement, Barlow feels the band has made significant musical strides on I Bet On Sky as well. The album does pick up strength throughout, with the standouts in the latter half being “Pierce the Morning Rain” and closer “See It On Your Side,” which in fact ends things off too soon. In Barlow’s estimation, “There seems to be more extremes on this record; the punk songs are punker and the soft songs are softer, and I kind of like that. And I like how J experimented a bit more with putting keyboards in here and there. He even used a synth guitar on one song, which is really cool.”

Barlow’s praise of Mascis is genuine, and at one point he even calls him a genius when talking about the guitarist’s rhythmic instincts. Yet, it’s also obvious that the old animosities are never far from the surface. Barlow is able to laugh it off now, but it begs the question, how is everyone really getting along?

“Camaraderie? There’s no such thing when you’re in a band with J Mascis,” Barlow says. “The basic validations you expect to get from other people are not there with him at all. But there’s a reason for that, which has nothing to do with him being a dick. That’s just the way he is, and if one day he started looking at me with bright wide eyes, saying, ‘That’s cool, let’s try that,” I would be totally freaked out. Like, did someone kidnap the real J?”

For Barlow, having Dinosaur Jr. as a large part of his life again appears to have struck the sort of balance he has always been searching for. Of course, that could change at any time, but it seems as if Mascis has come to understand the importance of having that balance as well. For now, at least, everything is the way it should be.

“I love playing with Dinosaur Jr. because when I do my own things, it’s always so much more fragile,” Barlow says. “Songs are always ready to fall apart, and I love that vulnerability too. Allowing yourself to fuck up and be human is really important, and that’s something I hope I can impart onto young musicians. But, would I rather be on stage in front of 20,000 people with Dinosaur Jr. or with Sebadoh? Being a part of that wall of sound that [Dinosaur Jr.] creates is something I do get off on.”

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