published: 24 /
In 'Condemned to Rock 'n' Roll', Ben Howarth writes about Dinosaur Jr's third album, 'I Bet on Sky', which is due out in September
So, this month I am frothing with excitement, as three of my musical heroes are making one of their periodic comebacks. It has been three years since Dinosaur Jr released ‘Farm’ - an album I consider the finest to have come from any American band in at least two decades.
I have played ‘Farm’ to within a micron of its life – but still the tunes soar and the guitars fizz. It’s little short of perfect. Perhaps nothing Dinosaur Jr do can ever match it; perhaps nothing any band will ever do can match it. But I don’t care: I’ll listen to anything J Mascis, Lou Barlow and Murph produce.
‘I Bet On Sky’ will be out in mid-September – the third album since the band surprised pretty much everyone by ending one of rock’s most poisonous feuds. (Note, by the way, my casual reference to ‘mid-September there; I actually have the date in my diary, underlined.) In 1987, Dinosaur Jr’s layers of guitar were a sound no-one had ever heard before. Kevin Shields and Kurt Cobain were taking notes. But jealousy conspired to leave J Mascis as the only member left for most of the nineties.
Of Dinosaur Jr’s peers, it’s hard to find any band that hasn’t made some kind of comeback. But rarer is the kind of comeback Dinosaur Jr’s ‘classic’ line-up have enjoyed, not least because theirs was not a break-up so much as a descent into hatred. We know not whether Barlow and Mascis have truly resolved their differences, but they have now made as many albums post-reformation as they did first-time around. The first (‘Beyond’, 2007) was better than anyone can reasonably have expected, but ‘the one’ was ‘Farm’ (2009), containing the music they might have made in 1991, had they been able to bear each other’s company.
Mascis may have reconvened the band simply because it allows him a bigger audience, and more leeway from critics. Lou Barlow added two of his own songs to ‘Farm’, but this is very much Mascis’ show. I may love Barlow’s work with Sebadoh almost as much, but under the Dinosaur Jr banner, he is Froome to Mascis’ Wiggens.
Truly great guitarists don’t grow old, they just improve. The more you listen to Dinosaur Jr’s songs, the clearer it becomes that the best ones are built not around the melodies, but around the guitars. The solo on the new ‘single’ (physical copies not available) ‘Watch The Corners’ doesn’t arrive until halfway through the song, but its worth waiting for. There’s a false start, a few seconds of Mascis’ finger-weaving genius, before the chorus reappears. The final two minutes of the song are lost entirely to Mascis’ acrobatic fingers. Mascis rarely bothers to sing over his solos, giving us permission - should we possibly need it – to sit back and enjoy them solely for what they are.
Mascis does write good songs, as it happens. But the guitar solos make them better. Punk’s legacy is often overstated, but its outlawing of solos has stuck, and we’re generally worse off for it. Imagine jazz music without solos – it’d sound ridiculous. Solos give space to a song, and give us time for them to sink in. Critics use punk’s code of conduct as an excuse for disliking guitar solos. But I suspect there is a simpler reason – explaining why one guitar solo is good and another is bad requires a genuine grasp of musical theory, something few rock critics have. So all solos are dismissed as a rule.
Dinosaur Jr’s ‘classic’ albums were made before Mascis had really learnt to play solos. You suspect that the walls of feedback were compensation for what he knew was missing, but luckily, critics love feedback. Having acquired ‘legendary’ status, Dinosaur Jr can include as many guitar solos as they like. (It’s worth noting that Mascis’ two albums with the Fog sound almost exactly like his albums with Dinosaur Jr, but got much worse reviews.)
The new album may be better than ‘Farm’. It may be a bit worse. But the important thing is that it is nearly here. So, now all I can do is wait until September. On Monday 17th I will take a diversion from my daily commute, find a record shop and buy the album, walk home with a swifter step than usual, make a cup of tea, switch on the CD player. And then press play.