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Dinosaur Jr: the alt-rock pioneers are back

The latest album from the 1980s' group is a welcome throwback to their early years, mating punk and grunge

J. Mascis of Dinosaur Jr. at O2 Forum Kentish Town, London, in 2016.
J. Mascis of Dinosaur Jr. at O2 Forum Kentish Town, London, in 2016. (Getty Images)

When Dinosaur Jr. emerged with their debut album in 1985, the trio, comprising J. Mascis (guitar, vocals, songwriting), Lou Barlow on bass and Murph on drums, impressed immediately. Their sound, guitar-driven and noisy, gave them a uniqueness. But that first album, Dinosaur, was uneven. Some tracks were straight off hard rock, some exuded hard-core punk’s minimalism, and some others were more experimental. It wasn’t until their second album, 1987’s You’re Living All Over Me, that the band showed how influential it would become.

On that sophomore effort, Dinosaur Jr., their members still in their early 20s, honed their distinctive sound: Mascis’ guitar riffs, massive, relentless, loud and often gnarled; Barlow’s speedily paced bass; and the raw beat of Murph’s drums, along with Mascis’ vocals, like the creaky tenor of Neil Young. Dinosaur Jr.’s trademark sound somehow reflected two paradoxical aspects: punk’s urgency and grunge’s laid-back style. You’re Living All Over Me would become a definitive album on the indie and alternative rock scene, strongly influencing many bands that followed.

Dinosaur Jr.’s third album, Bug, had a more polished sound but also a couple of tunes that were folk-rock derivatives, such as Pond Song. It was also characteristically noisy, and had the alternatingly loud and quiet sound that had become their trademark.

Unfortunately, though, the band broke up owing to differences between Barlow and Mascis. The latter went on to re-form Dinosaur Jr. without the former. Over the next few years, they released four albums, including Hand It Over in 1997. All those albums had the stamp of Mascis’ singular guitar and vocals but somewhat lacked the fresh rawness of the original trio.

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Dinosaur Jr.’s original line-up returned in the mid-2000s and after a 10-year gap, began releasing records again. They still had the Dinosaur Jr. idiom but the sound was a bit more accessible. That didn’t mean the band had lost its touch, though. Give A Glimpse Of What Yer Not, released in 2016, was a brilliant showcasing of their sound, still raw, noisy, yet infectious in its appeal. And last week, they released their latest album, Sweep It Into Space, the fifth since the original line-up reunited.

The members of the band, formed in Massachusetts when the members were barely out of their teens, are now in their mid-50s. And after a journey spanning nearly four decades, they still seem to rock. And rock very hard.

Just before the album dropped, the band released a single, Take It Back, accompanied by a video in claymation and stop-motion style inspired by the album cover. It depicts an abstract creature, part owl, part ghoul.

The album itself is a surprise (and welcome) throwback to their earliest years. It is as if Sweep It Into Space could, sequentially, easily fit in after their first three albums. In their latest setlist of 12 songs, they seem to have gone back in time to their glory years.

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The early-era Dinosaur Jr. albums all had a strong Do It Yourself (DIY) vibe. No post-production fripperies or attempts to tone down the raw loudness. That vibe is back. The fuzzy guitar, pounding bass and drums and Mascis’ anguished tenor, sometimes cranking up into falsetto, all sound so much like their first three albums it’s hard to believe this album hasn’t jumped out of a vault full of old, forgotten recordings.

Yet the tracks have variety. I Met The Stones has a heavy rock vibe; Hide Another Round, an unabashed punk-style guitar riff; and the unusual (for Dinosaur Jr.) And Me has a jangly, slacker theme. That last theme may have been influenced by the album’s co-producer, the noted indie musician Kurt Vile, who is known for his clean and mellow compositions.

Overall, Sweep It Into Space does what Dinosaur Jr. do well and what they set out to do when they formed: mate punk and grunge. It is an album that older fans of the band will undoubtedly welcome, like the pleasurable nostalgia of a trip back to the past. And it is also an album that younger listeners unfamiliar with Dinosaur Jr. can check out to get acquainted with the band.

Questions remain. Does the throwback to an early era mean that the band will try to clone its younger self in the years to come? Will they try too hard to recapture their early years? Hopefully not. Because sometimes when famous but ageing rockers try to do that, they can seem comical caricatures of themselves. For now, though, these pioneers of alt-rock have shown that they haven’t yet lost the plot.

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The Lounge List: Five tracks from Dinosaur Jr. to bookend your week

1. I Ain’t from Sweep It Into Space

2. I Met The Stones from Sweep It Into Space

3. And Me from Sweep It Into Space

4. Sludgefest from You’re Living All Over Me

5. Pieces from Farm

First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.


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