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Short Takes on Recent Releases

Joanna Newsom strips down and steps up, Dinosaur Jr continues the cash-in, and Pelican reels it in a notch.

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Dinosaur Jr | Beyond (Fat Possum)

Joanna Newsom | Joanna Newsom & the Ys Street Band EP (Drag City)

Pelican | City of Echoes (Hydra Head)

Dinosaur Jr

When Thu 5/31, 9 PM (18+), Fri-Sat 6/1-2, 10 PM

Where Abbey Pub, 3420 W. Grace

Price $25, $20 in advance

Info 773-478-4408 or 866-468-3401

DINOSAUR JR | Beyond | Fat Possum

I hate to be the bearer of bummer tidings, but if someone told you Beyond picks up right where the OG Dinosaur lineup left off 19 years ago, they lied. The first song is so commercial that instead of J. Mascis's trademark whine I half expected to hear about APR financing from my local Subaru dealer. As for the rest, well, there's some rippin' solos, but then if Mascis could make it through five minutes without devoting two to a shredding I'd take it as a sign of the apocalypse. Even those final, contract-fulfilling Dino records (when it was just J. skating on the name) were worth a cursory listen for the solos alone.

The other reason Beyond is not Bug part II is that Lou Barlow's songs are not posthardcore anthems of virginal rage; they sound like Bakesale outtakes. And they're the album's only real source of heat.

The first three Dinosaur records were indisputably landmarks of their time. They defined the sound of the underground for the better part of a decade. Their postteen fury was distilled into songs that were heartbreaking in their perfection; sadly, the band doesn't build upon that legacy here. Beyond feels like a cash-in--though if it is, can you blame them? In 1986 indie rock was not the Paypal-enabled cash market it is now. It's like they went to the Antiques Roadshow to see how their old junk was appraising and to their surprise they had the half-million-dollar Navajo blanket. Do you hold it against them for deciding to sell it?

Since burying a decades-old hatchet in late 2005, the band's reissued their first three albums, made their reunion debut on late-night TV, logged sold-out tours, done the festivals, and issued collector's edition Dinosaur Jr Nike Dunks. Plus, there's a live DVD and a 53-track reissue of Barlow's solo material on the way. Amid all that, they still found the time to add an utterly mediocre record to their otherwise nearly flawless discography. --Jessica Hopper

JOANNA NEWSOM | Joanna Newsom & the Ys Street Band EP | Drag City

Blame Sufjan or the Arcade Fire for making swarm-size bands and orchestrations de rigueur for indie rock in '07, but those acts are easy listening compared to Joanna Newsom. Yet the philharmonic scope of her last album, Ys, didn't stop critics and fans from caricaturing her as a wood sprite. Perhaps the confidence and aggression she demonstrates on this new three-song EP will get her celebrated for what she is--a tremendously talented artist.

Here Newsom is backed by a trio rather than the petite symphony of Ys, but her vision is no less outsize. There's one new song, "Colleen," and two versions of old ones, "Clam, Crab, Cockle, Cowrie" from her 2004 debut The Milk-Eyed Mender and "Cosmia" off of Ys. The songs are complicated and lyrically have a real emotional heft. She carries them with confidence, her voice cutting through the soft wheeze of the accordion like a sickle. On "Colleen" Newsom returns to a Ys-ian topic: the expectations that come with a female identity: "They took me in and shod my feet / And taught me prayers for chastity / And said my name would be Colleen." With a seditious wink, she follows the verse with a sharp hiccup set against a twinkling whorl of wild Gypsy bluegrass.

Newsom's music alone is a marvel, but what makes her a great artist is how demanding she is of herself and her listeners. A lot of respected indie bands get by on four chords and broken hearts; they ask nothing of us and our empathy is automatic. Newsom gets epic and elaborate and dares us to hang on for the ride. --Jessica Hopper

PELICAN | City of Echoes | Hydra Head

Up to just a few years ago this local quartet was something of a rare bird, churning out brutal, crusted-over metal jams minus the vocal accompaniment. Their sound was immediately striking, if not without antecedent--other posthardcore bands like Isis and Neurosis featured extended cyclical passages engaged in serious flirtation with the great god Heavy Metal, and like them Pelican dressed their claustrophobic murk in guitar filigree. Nothing too fancy, but it made for a solid start.

Then the band hit artistic pay dirt with 2005's The Fire in Our Throats Will Beckon the Thaw, which featured a rash of expansive, explosive melodies and piles of reverb. It was thematically richer than previous recordings, with waves of pastoral acoustic arpeggiation and massive Godspeed-like soaring peaks--epic stuff.

On City of Echoes, which comes out June 5, the riffs still carve up the wallpaper and the guitars breathe and shimmer with sustain, but Pelican has reined in the bombast and tightened the screws. The melodies remain expansive, which is important since Pelican is not a showy "technical" band that elicits oohs and aahs for its raging solos. The postmetal field has grown exponentially in the last few years and Pelican deserve credit for playing to their strengths: had they aspired to greaterness, they would have risked becoming a parody of themselves. This record represents a success. ---J.R. Nelson

For more on music, see our blogs Crickets and Post No Bills at chicagoreader.com.

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