Dinosaur Jr., an alt-rock trio consisting of lead singer J Mascis, drummer Murph and bassist/occasional singer Lou Barlow, are about as ancient as dinosaurs themselves. The band started in 1984, and they’ve been professional musicians for almost 30 years. I Bet on Sky, their tenth studio album, comes at the tail end of a career that has shaped the trajectory of independent music.
The band has had one of the more tumultuous histories in rock lore. Barlow and Mascis have regularly disputed. Five years after their debut, Barlow was kicked out of the band. While recording their third album, Bug, messed-up s*** went down—and Mascis even forced Barlow to scream the line, “Why don’t you like me?” until Barlow coughed up blood. Once during a live show Mascis and Barlow attacked each other. Murph, for his part, got kicked out of the band in 1991. Mascis finally retired the name “Dinosaur Jr.” in 1997 and worked on numerous side projects as well as solo work, while Lou Barlow formed Sebadoh, an indie-rock band that’s been influential in its own right.
Despite their troubled past, Dinosaur Jr. has collectively managed to resolve their differences enough to record an album. And, to our knowledge, there were no attacks. Given their interpersonal turmoil, that’s an impressive feat.
I Bet on Sky contains many recognizable Dinosaur Jr. elements: Murph’s pounding drums and Lou Barlow’s melodic, distinctive style of bass, both perfect complements to J Mascis’ blistering fretboard antics and lazy, whiny voice. And, of course, as is always the case with Dinosaur Jr., the pace is restless, the volume’s high and there’s lots and lots of guitar. There is something nostalgic and comforting about their sound, which is charmingly untarnished by recent music trends and auto-tuning.
Compared to Dinosaur Jr.’s canon, this album has a lighter, breezier feel. They sound cleaner, crisper, perhaps as the result of 30 years of experience. It’s unexpectedly lovely, the kind of grunge rock I’d listen to nestled in a warm, fuzzy blanket by the fireplace.
The opening track, “Don’t Pretend You Didn’t Know,” starts with melodic keyboard and veers towards something surprisingly funky. “Almost Fare” is laid-back and summery. Barlow’s two song contributions, “Rude” and “Recognition,” are sensitive and vulnerable, with lyrics full of regret and lessons learned. Even the punkier, more chugging tracks, “Watch the Corners” and “Pierce the Morning Rain,” are mellow and even melancholy.
Only their third release after getting back together in 2005, I Bet on Sky doesn’t try hard to prove something. It doesn’t try to live up to the glory years of Dinosaur Jr. in the late ’80s, either. But it works and sounds fresh to boot. It seems like the members of Dinosaur Jr. have finally learned what most second-graders master—how to get along with each other. That interpersonal growth has translated musically.