I Bet on Sky is Dinosaur Jr.'s 10th album in 27 years. That's an easy way of putting it, anyway. A more accurate summation would be that after almost three decades of lineup shifts, acrimonious fallouts, heavily influential and groundbreaking sonic explorations, flirtation with mild commercial success and an eight-year dormancy, the triumphantly reunited Dinosaur Jr. has put out another album.
Born out of the ruins of early '80s hardcore act Deep Wound, the band recorded four full-lengths that would lay the groundwork for early '90s grunge and the shape of indie rock to come. The band created a self-described "ear-bleeding country" with folky tunes filtered through a sprawling blast of fuzz, anchored with hard rock hooks and spiked with loads of feedback delivered at punishing volumes. Most importantly, the band introduced an emphasis on lead guitar that was at the time rare in punk and indie rock. Singer/guitarist/guitar legend J Mascis' lazy croon — all too often likened to that of Neil Young — was essentially the voice that led future slackers into Generation X. But tensions with bassist and sometime singer Lou Barlow eventually culminated in Barlow's departure from the band. From then on, Dinosaur Jr. was essentially Mascis' solo vehicle as he hired and fired a revolving lineup throughout the '90s, eventually retiring the moniker in 1997.
The past 10 years have been chock-full of reunions by '80s and '90s college radio faves like Pixies and Jesus and Mary Chain — bands whose cult statuses have fermented into the stuff of legend and ballooned exponentially. Dinosaur Jr., however, is the only example of that ilk to not only come back from the dead — all original members intact — but also pick up almost exactly where they left off, writing and performing consistently quality material.
The founding Dino Jr. lineup re-formed in 2005. What were initially regarded as "reunion albums" — 2007's Beyond and 2009's Farm — have since proved beyond a reasonable doubt that their knack for crafting feedback-drenched proto-grunge hasn't gone anywhere. Both efforts were critically lauded, but the band's adherence to their fail-safe formula makes both releases nearly identical in terms of short-term memory. I Bet on Sky, Dino Jr.'s third LP since their second coming, is officially anything but a reunion album. Regular touring and recording have the original Dinosaur Jr. transcending "heritage" status and settling back into our hearts and minds as a regular working band. Using the hindsight of previous experiments to subtly pick up where the Barlow-Mascis fusion initially left off, their latest effort softens the blow just enough to let some of the sonic explorations of Dinosaur's post-Barlow era seep in.
While it does stray from Dinosaur Jr.'s typical formula just so, I Bet on Sky is still by no means as eclectic as their first attempt at a swan song, 1997's Hand It Over — an underwhelming foray into string and horn arrangements. The band still knows where its strengths lie, and hence they don't skimp on the fuzz-soaked tones and overcranked volume. But the quieter side of the Dino catalog — the epic ballads that first surfaced on Green Mind and Without a Sound — has found its way back into the mix, adding a little acoustic guitar and the return of their trademark Mellotron. Introspective slow jams like "Stick a Toe In" and "What Was That" could easily be mistaken for Without a Sound outtakes were it not for Barlow's monstrous, blown-out bass chords plunking in the background. On the other hand, "Pierce the Morning Rain" features an opening riff as gnarly as anything from 1987's landmark You're Living All Over Me while summing up the melodic appeal of the band's past two records in a single chorus.
Barlow contributes two tunes of his own here: "Rude" and "Recognition." Each sounds a hell of a lot like a throwaway from his other band, '90s indie cornerstone Sebadoh — who, of course, has also since become a reunited, working, touring band. The difference here, though, is Mascis' unmistakably majestic shred riding over the top of the songs.
Between the two of them, Mascis and Barlow recorded and toured with almost 20 bands in the interim between parting ways in the late '80s and reuniting mid-Aughts. And the thing with I Bet on Sky is, you can actually hear it — the influence of those other endeavors is finally showing itself.