Eighties/nineties punk rock icons Dinosaur Jr. have returned with Beyond, an incredible reunion that ranks among the best material that the band has ever released. The original Dinosaur trio, guitarist/singer J. Mascis, bassist Lou Barlow, and drummer Murph (Emmett Patrick Murphy), have together crafted an album that successfully marries indie rock and guitar rock into an impressive, powerful, and tuneful sonic force. With Beyond, Dinosaur Jr. leapfrogs other seminal eighties alt-rock groups who have gotten back together in recent years (like The Pixies and Mission of Burma), with one of the best – if not the best – reunion record of the twenty-first century.
Originally formed in Amherst, Massachusetts in the mid-eighties, Dinosaur Jr. released three records under famed eighties punk rock label SST, before Barlow was rudely fired by the allegedly controlling Mascis. The early nineties Nirvana-wave of popularity carried the band to a much wider audience with 1993’s Where You Been and the following year’s Without a Sound. By Sound, Murph had been replaced on drums by Mascis (drums were Mascis’ original instrument), turning Dinosaur Jr. into essentially his solo project, whose name was retired following 1997’s Hand It Over.
But in 2004, Mascis regained the master rights to the original three Dinosaur records from the infamously difficult-to-deal-with SST (other bands that have had to sue SST over royalties and masters include The Meat Puppets, Sonic Youth, and Hüsker Dü), and was able the following year to re-release remastered copies of 1985’s Dinosaur, 1987’s You’re Living All Over Me, and 1988’s Bug on Merge. This led to a semi-reunion of Mascis, Barlow, and Murph, who toured together in support of their re-releases. It could have ended with that tour, but the three men thankfully worked together so well that they then went into the studio and produced Beyond, the first record under the ‘Dinosaur Jr.’ name in ten years, and the first by the original trio in twenty.
Beyond opens with a rocking, distorted guitar and melodic backbeat in the ‘fuse-lighting’ “Almost Ready”, epic like great guitar-rock, but never indulgent. The other likely single, “Been There All The Time” is more driving, fun, and bopping, with an excellent guitar solo. When Dinosaur Jr. toured in support of the Merge re-releases, the band only played material off those three albums, disappointing the many fans that’d discovered the band with Where You Been or Without a Sound. But “Ready” and “Been There” clearly recall the Barlow-less Where, Dinosaur Jr.’s best-selling record, with “Been There” directly reminiscent of the band’s most successful single, Where You Been’s “Start Choppin’” (one of the best radio hits that came in the wake of the success of “Smells Like Teen Spirit”).
Out of “Almost Ready”, Beyond stays on the post-Barlow Where You Been/Green Mind track with “Crumble” and “Pick Me Up”. The straight guitar-rock of “Pick”, and later track “It’s Me”, more bring to mind lesser Where tracks, as both are a little too long and a little forgettable. But “Crumble” showcases the sadder side of Dinosaur Jr., with its higher notes and lower voice, rocking, yet also flowing.
However, Beyond in fact draws from the band’s entire history. “I Got Lost” has acoustic guitars and fuzzy vocals that could have fit perfectly on Hand It Over, but the following “Lightning Bulb” has the harder-rocking tendencies that make it a sort of follow-up to their original ‘bulb’ song, Dinosaur’s “Bulbs of Passion”. The final track, “What If I Knew”, actually improves upon this strong legacy, returning to a Bug/Green Mind-style straightforward emotion, with distorted, fuzzy guitars, but is also far prettier.
Then there is “We’re Not Alone” and “Back To Your Heart”. The lighter, higher, and more intimate “Not Alone” is closest to Mascis’ post-Dinosaur solo work. And “Back”, the only Barlow-written song on Beyond, is less a Barlow-era Dinosaur song than a song fitting Sebadoh, Barlow’s post-Dino band: slower, with Sebadoh-like echoed vocals and (unsurprisingly) heavier bass.
The reunification of Dinosaur Jr. was not an easy thing. Lou Barlow had opened up Sebadoh III (the first Sebadoh record to come after his forced departure from Dinosaur) with his anti-J. Mascis tune, “The Freed Pig”. Perhaps this return was only made possible after seeing fellow late eighties alt-gods Frank Black and Kim Deal bury the hatchet and reunite The Pixies (and all the sold-out shows that followed…). Perhaps it was simply born out facing a shared enemy in SST (if so, let’s all cross our fingers and hope the same holds true for the even badder blood between Hüsker Dü’s Bob Mould and Grant Hart, who are currently suing their former label over accounting irregularities). Maybe it’s merely that time heals all wounds, to the point where today, Barlow and his even-more-recently-reunited Sebadoh could fulfill a fans’ request for “Pig” in concert (QRO live review) and it wouldn’t derail things. Or maybe it just wasn’t such a big deal in the first place: Mascis produced a cover of “Pig” by Deal’s Breeders way back in 1994 (on Head to Toe). Whatever’s the case, we are all very lucky that it happened, as this rapprochement has given us Beyond, a record that not only reminds us of all that’s great, and all that rocks, about Dinosaur Jr., but actually rocks our asses and makes us fall back in love, all over again.