There's been a lot of really good bands over the past 20 years or so, but precious few great ones; I believe that Boise, Idaho's Built To Spill is among the few modern day rock bands deserving of that designation. Led by singer-songwriter-guitarist Doug Martsch, formerly of Seattle's Treepeople, the alternately moody, poppy, and balls out rocking Built To Spill sound crosses the fractured pop of Pavement with the searing guitar heroics of Dinosaur Jr. (or Neil Young, perhaps his most obvious influence), the end result of which is singularly Built To Spill - and singularly satisfying. On Ultimate Alternative Wavers they're not quite there yet, though. Recorded with bassist Brett Netson and drummer Ralph Youtz, the first of many lineups as Martsch thought that frequent lineup changes would ensure the restless experimentation within the band that he sought, the album contains all the elements of the classic Built To Spill sound but falls short with regards to memorable songs. Simply put, the album is a mess, albeit often an extremely exciting mess, though the band's soft-to-loud dynamics, frequent tempo shifts, and songs-within-songs adventurousness takes some getting used to, as does Martsch's high-pitched, child-like voice, an acquired taste to many (again not unlike Neil Young). But like Dinosuar Jr.'s J. Mascis, Martsch is a genuinely innovative and often thrilling guitar player, and the band's songs often have creative flourishes in the background that reward repeat plays and an attention to detail. Still, there's no getting around the fact that among these songs only "Three Years Ago Today" and "Nowhere Nothin' Fuckup" really stand out, the rest lacking hooks and easily distinguishable melodies. With six of the albums 10 songs exceeding five minutes and two exceeding eight minutes, some of these songs and the album itself starts to seem a little long-winded over the long haul, as a more focused approach songwriting and performance-wise would've made the album seem like more than merely a jumbled mess of unrelated parts. Still, those parts are sometimes tremendous, the guitar on "Get A Life" and "Hazy," for example, and the band would exhibit astonishing growth on each of their next three albums, none of which Netson or Youtz were "officially" around for. As for Ultimate Alternative Wavers, it's not the ideal Built To Spill starting point and it's deeply flawed, but big time fans would do well to scoop it up at some point, as most of the things that would later make this band special are already in place; they just needed to be fine tuned for Martsch and company to go from good to great.
There’s Nothing Wrong With Love (Up '94) Rating: A-
Martsch replaced Netson and Youtz with Brett Nelson (not Netson) and Andy Capps for There’s Nothing Wrong With Love, which peaks immediately with several catchy pop songs: the brightly upbeat jangle rocker “In The Morning,” the incredible shout along “Reasons,” the propulsive yet extremely melodic “Big Dipper,” and the less propulsive but also extremely melodic and moodier “Car.” Most of the later songs here aren’t as immediately tuneful as these (an exception is the lovely but brief “Twin Falls”), and some may seem undistinguished at first or even grate at times ("The Source"), but I’ve grown to like almost all of them, and several epic endings (“Cleo,” “Some,” “Stab,” “Distopian Dream Girl”) with grungy guitar heroics whetted my appetite for the band's sprawling next album, Perfect From Now On. Of course, There’s Nothing Wrong With Love has much shorter songs than that broodingly ambitious gem, and its simpler, lighter pop songs are more immediately accessible, though they also feature plenty of twists and turns and changes of mood, which should appeal to adventurous listeners while turning off more conservative types. Like all Built To Spill albums, this one grows richer over time and has lyrics that are worth poring over (evocative example from the aforementioned “Car”: “I want to see the movies of my dreams”), and the bonus track, a bogus preview of the next Built To Spill album, is a total gas. Note: 1995 saw the release of the Built To Spill/Caustic Resin EP (Caustic Resin is Netson's main band), while The Normal Years, a 10-song rarities compilation of tracks from 1993-1995, was released in 1996. Also of note is the Halo Benders, Martsch's side-project with Beat Happening's Calvin Johnson.
Perfect From Now On (Warner Bros. '97) Rating: A+
With Capps gone but Netson back as a guest guitarist, the core of Built To Spill now consisted of Martsch, Nelson, and drummer Scott Plouf (ex. Spinanes), though cellist John McMahon is also a key contributor and Phil Ek once again produces. Considerably different than its predecessor, Perfect From Now On, the band's major label debut, moves at its own relaxed pace, with eight long songs that unfold slowly, though they all eventually explode in fits and spurts. Many of these songs include mournfully evocative and quite colorful atmospherics that build to a coiled intensity before bursting into full-blown guitar rave-ups that can last for up to several minutes long, leaving the listener drained but exhilarated. The album's dense layering of sounds and frequent shifts in tempo recall the heady days of progressive rock, but though some of these songs may meander a little too much for their own good (only one song is less than six minutes long), the payoff is always well worth the wait, and Built To Spill’s indulgences are the result of ambition, not pomposity. Each song here seems like a combination of several songs that are seamlessly interwoven together, the end result of which is a spectacular tapestry of sounds whose whole far exceeds the sum of its individual parts. Of course, some of those individual parts stick out, such as the majestic initial buildup of “Randy Described Eternity,” the dramatic jam ending to “I Would Hurt A Fly,” and the thrillingly unexpected rush of “Stop The Show” - and that's just the first three songs! “Made Up Dreams” is notable for its chugging groove and intense vocals, but like many of these songs this one completely changes gear, and as such its second half is highlighted by lush orchestrations and Martsch's wonder-filled vocal. Similarly ambitious and spectacularly successful, "Velvet Waltz" starts with a pretty melody and finger pointing lyrics ("you thought of everything but one thing you forgot is you're wrong") before gradually escalating in intensity until its swirling psychedelics take the song to its exciting conclusion. Rounding out the set list, "Out Of Sight" is more low-key but explodes during its memorable "on and on" fadeout, "Kicked It In The Sun" is an utterly gorgeous mood piece that evolves into a melodic marvel of a pop song, and "Untrustable Part 2 (About Someone Else)" unsurprisingly provides a spectacular, multi-sectioned close to this spectacular album. There's an unpredictability at play throughout the album that keeps the interest (and the excitement) high, though it will likely take several listens to fully appreciate the many moods of this truly “alternative” creation, which is more diffuse and “difficult” than its predecessor. But in my opinion this utter masterpiece of an album is also much more rewarding, and anyone who likes epic songs and has a wide-ranging musical palette that can shift from ethereal musical passages to guitar-based hard rock should find Perfect From Now On perfectly addictive.
Keep It Like A Secret (Warner Bros. '99) Rating: A
On their sprawling last album, Doug Martsch promised to be Perfect From Now On. Ditching the rotating cast of musicians plan and keeping that album’s adroit rhythm section (Nelson and Plouf) as full-time band members, Keep It Like A Secret ambitiously aims to make good on that promise. Aside from the exciting closer “Broken Chairs,” an excellent 8+ minute guitar epic that would've fit perfectly on Perfect From Now On, Martsch largely does away with long guitar jams and concentrates the band's efforts instead on shorter songs that contain some truly creative ensemble playing. The end result is challenging but catchy songs that still manage to continually change directions in exciting new ways; witness Martsch's otherworldly guitar solo at 1:47 of album opener "The Plan," for example. Don't get me wrong, Built To Spill still strive for big moments that are filled with a sense of wonder, but these are epic songs at more manageable lengths. The loose grooves and Martsch’s soaring guitar melodies produce some dreamy highs - you'll find few guitar melodies as gorgeous as "Carry The Zero" or "Else" - but for all the intense beauty on display the band can still cut through with a lurching rhythmic chug or a jagged guitar scrape. Yet the superlative end result can still always be called pop music, and Martsch’s appealingly high-pitched voice makes the cumulative pull of these songs curiously uplifting no matter how grungy the music gets. More than anything, Martsch continues to coax beautiful sounds out of his guitar, and though the scaled down attack produces less otherworldly peaks than on Perfect From Now On, the lulls here are also fewer and far between. It’s not quite perfect, as the band's diehard indie fan base likely had some problems with the album's cleaner, more pop friendly sound, but this album is still of an exceedingly high quality, and if the band continues its creative hot streak then it should only be a matter of time before the secret’s out that this is one of the most thrilling guitar bands around today. 2007 Update: I wrote this original review years ago, and I listened to the album today for the first time in about a year. Even so, I immediately recognized every song, all of which I thoroughly enjoyed. If that's not a great album, then I don't know what is.
Live (Warner Bros. '00) Rating: A-
Recorded at three locations (NYC, Seattle, Denver) during the band’s Keep It Like A Secret tour, there’s surprisingly little from that album here. Still, the version of “The Plan” is stellar, with excellent energy and a more epic overall feel than the studio version. Conversely, the Perfect From Now On songs (“Randy Described Eternity,” “Stop The Show,” “I Would Hurt A Fly”), though predictably solid, fall short of their studio counterparts. Oddly enough, these versions are actually shorter, and as such there’s less of a buildup; to speak metaphorically, with less foreplay the climaxes aren’t as exciting or as intense. Elsewhere, you get a Halo Benders song (“Virginia Reel Around The Fountain”) with a really good groove and of course some great guitar, and a cover of Love And Laughter’s “Singing Sores Make Perfect Swords.” Now, I don’t know the original, but this version is certainly nothing special, and this rendition of “Car,” though quite good, seems similarly small and unnecessary given the song that it follows. Indeed, the main reason to own this album, the reason this album is a must own for you guitar enthusiasts, is for its two 20-minute guitar showcases: a mesmerizing version of Neil Young’s “Cortez The Killer” and an elongated “Broken Chairs.” Now, I’m not sure that either song needs to be 20 minutes long, especially “Broken Chairs,” but I’m too into playing my air guitar to complain too much when listening to these songs. Simply put, these live versions are thrilling, being raw and grand and everything else in between, and the only caveat is that they simply dwarf everything else on the album, which on the whole features a fittingly louder, albeit more muddled sound than what I’m used to from these guys. Let’s be honest, how much you like this album will greatly depend on how much you like long guitar solos, but given that Martsch is among my favorite modern day guitarists I'm certainly on board, though I need to be in the mood for it.
Ancient Melodies Of The Future (Warner Bros. '01) Rating: A-
This overlooked album received only a lukewarm reception from the critics, and it sold in disappointing quantities. I have my theory why - whereas Perfect From Now On was shocking in its epic ambition, and Keep It Like A Secret was equally surprising in the way that it shortened song lengths and upped the pop quotient while retaining the band's epic qualities - the wonderfully titled Ancient Melodies Of The Future doesn’t really deliver much new sound wise. However, though it sometimes lacks a certain spark, these 10 tunes are often terrific, and the album as a whole holds its own as a fine continuation of what came before it. Sure, given the grand leaps made by previous albums I can see how it would disappoint some people that the band simply decided to deliver more of the same high quality stuff, albeit in a more straightforward, understated manner (I guess Martsch got his "guitar hero" moves out of his system on Live). However, with realistic expectations comes the realization that you can't reinvent yourselves every time out. Besides, Martsch again delivers strong songwriting and stunning guitar playing within the framework of his songs, which on the whole are beautifully arranged. "You Are" and "The Weather" are especially lovely, while "Strange" is among the band's hookiest songs and should've been a hit single. "Trimmed and Burning" and "Don't Try" are the album's most rocking tracks, "Happiness" is a jumpy funky number, and "Fly Around My Pretty Little Miss" is a short fast catchy little ditty. Really, the only song I'm not sure about is "The Host," which drags somewhat and is a bit boring, but even that one has its pretty moments. Finishing off the track list (while noting that I'm describing these songs out of order), "In Your Mind" is notable for its moody buildups, and "Alarmed" is another intense builder that’s arguably the album’s most ambitious track. All in all, the album this one reminds me the most of is There's Nothing Wrong With Love, and though it’s less acclaimed I feel that it’s worthy of comparison to that lauded earlier work. Catchy, edgy, exciting, intense, moody, mournful (once again cello is featured prominently), pretty, soothing, uplifting - Built to Spill can be (and often are) all of these things. And though this album isn't where I'd start with Built To Spill since it primarily reinforces past strengths rather than showing off any new moves, given its consistent quality (it's a rare album that ends as strong as it starts) I'd also argue that your Built To Spill collection is incomplete without it. P.S. Martsch released a low-key solo effort, Now You Know, in 2002.
You In Reverse (Warner Bros. '06) Rating: A-
With bands obviously influenced by Built To Spill such as Modest Mouse and Death Cab For Cutie having significant commercial success in recent years, hopes were high for a similar breakthrough for Built To Spill. It didn't happen, but You In Reverse, the band's first album in five years, was another impressive accomplishment that can be added to an already imposing back catalog. This was the band's first album not produced by Phil Ek in eons, and touring guitarist Jim Roth is officially added to the fold while Netson also appears on four tracks (Steven Wray Lobdell also adds color by playing what sounds like piano, vibraphone, and other instruments, while Quasi's Sam Coomes plays organ on "Gone"). As for the sound of the album, it's looser than in the past and features a nice mix of intense rockers and melancholic mid-tempo ballads, with long songs (7 out of 10 exceeding 5 minutes) again the norm a la Perfect From Now On. Given that, how much you like this album may depend on your tolerance for extended instrumental jams, but I for one get off on much of this album, mostly because Martsch continues to be such a phenomenal guitar player. Again, similar to the last album, this is not a reinvention a la Perfect From Now On or Keep It Like A Secret, it's just another really good album that encompasses much of what they do best. Among the highlights are the almost 9-minute, multi-sectioned album opener "Goin' Against Your Mind," which is difficult to describe, quite frankly, the moody yet melodic mid-tempo ballad (sorta) "Traces," which surges to an exciting climax, the pretty yet rocking "Conventional Wisdom," which is faster and features melodic hooky riffs that are Allman Brothers-ish in their high-pitched perfectness, and the highly emotive "Just A Habit," with its impressively dreamy yet rocking buildups. Other rocking efforts such as "Wherever You Go" (the album's most Crazy Horse-ish track) and "Mess With Time" (which completely changes gears for its last 2+ minutes) aren't quite the band at their best but they're also very good, as is the aforementioned "Gone," and the album is mostly marred by some overly simplistic moments that are a little on the lazy side. Sure, you could argue that some of these songs meander and that they could be shorter, and the band's cosmic lyrics may at times annoy the more grounded critics among us. However, when all is said and done this is another great guitar album, one that's again oddly catchy and approachable without being especially commercial. Built To Spill will likely never again match their late '90s peak, but You In Reverse sure was an admirable attempt.
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