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Few things are as dependable as a Dinosaur Jr. record. The band’s post-punk/pre-grunge attack has barely evolved in over thirty years, but that’s been to the trio’s advantage, developing into a signature sound. (An influential one, too – how many bands do you remember trying to imitate Dino Jr. in the late eighties and early nineties?) Whether natural or self-imposed, the band’s limitations – leader J Mascis’ seemingly lackadaisical vocals and derivative soloing, drummer Murph’s perfectly functional but unimaginative drumming, bassist Lou Barlow’s songs sometimes sounding like they’re from a different band entirely – end up being advantages, giving the group a sonic stamp unmistakable for anyone else. It also means that whole-scale overhauls are unlikely, if not impossible, which means the band has spent its career refining its approach, rather than changing it.
Sometimes, though, tweaking is enough. Since 2012’s I Bet On Sky, Dinosaur Jr. has upped the pop quotient in its work, putting as much effort into accessible songcraft as in guitar power, and that advance has given the band a real shot in the arm. Sweep It Into Space , the trio’s twelfth LP and first in five years, is the apex of its song-oriented approach, with a set of uniformly strong tunes given committed performances. The staccato chorus of “Hide Another Round” lets some air into the band’s usual wall of sound, giving the song an unusual amount of contrast. “I Met the Stones” rides a chugging hard rock riff that makes Mascis’ love of old-school hard rock more explicit than usual. “I Ran Away” puts the band’s stamp on a country/folk-ish melody, like Pure Prairie League filtered through the eighties college psych rock revival. A slick riff drives “I Expect It Always,” which seems crafted to acknowledge the debt Mascis owes Bob Mould. Barlow’s sweetly sung “Garden” adds a sense of dynamics that makes it one of the most collaborative cuts the band’s ever done. Enhanced by a soaring harmony vocal, “I Ain’t” boasts a pop-melodic chorus and lack of pretension to be anything other than what it is: a guitar-driven, power pop anthem. “Walking To You” is practically textbook Dinosaur, though it goes down so smoothly it’s hard to imagine anyone complaining about a lack of inspiration.
The closest the trio gets to experimentation is on a pair of tunes that sound like Barlow and Mascis decided to give each other’s style a go. Mascis’ “Take It Back” downplays guitar and adds cheap organ, string synthesizer and a low-fi indie pop atmosphere that recalls his partner’s work with his band Sebadoh than it does prior Dino Jr. anthems. Similarly, Barlow’s moody, mid-tempo album closer “You Wonder” could have been mistaken for one of his boss’s tunes, has Mascis sung it and slathered it with his usual six-string overload instead of a tasteful solo. But even those aren’t radical new paths – merely tweaks that Barlow and Mascis are smart enough to put to use. That creative intelligence makes for one of the album’s best traits – the professionalism that comes with age and shared history lets the musicians understand exactly what minor adjustments they can add to keep their work sounding fresh, without involving major alterations. And that’s enough to make Sweet It Into Space not just a good Dinosaur Jr. album, but a great one.
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