The Over/Under: Built To Spill

Built-to-Spillb550

Doug Martsch cannot hear you. He thinks the world has plenty of Built To Spill albums. This summer he told Pitchfork, “We’re not in any hurry to put anything out. There are plenty of Built To Spill records—no one is in a hurry to hear something new.” He’s wrong, though. Martsch should make more albums. He should make more BTS albums, but I think that he should also start a Robert Pollard-esque program of pseudonym bands where he releases several albums a year in different styles. Remember that fantastic closing track on There’s Nothing Wrong With Love that was a preview of the next Built To Spill record and it was a bunch of snippets of joke songs? That joke-song montage had a handful of tunes that were far better than a lot of bands’ earnest efforts. He could do albums just like that—as a joke—and still make year-end top-10 lists. If he doesn’t start recording under his own new band names, he should at least be a bit more mercenary and hire out his guitar work. More side projects and guest appearances, please. In 17 years, Built To Spill has released only seven studio albums; naturally, over that stretch of time, the band has gone through several musical phases: the early lo-fi charm of Ultimate Alternative Wavers; the poignant, small-town pop genius of There’s Nothing Wrong With Love; the epic, jammy, post-rock groove of Perfect From Now On and Keep It Like A Secret. (Martsch may have saved the guitar solo and possibly even the guitar altogether on those two records.) The next two BTS albums, Ancient Melodies Of The Future and You In Reverse, though lacking the definition of the earlier LPs, found the band nestling in to its sound and couldn’t have been made by any other group. Martsch has said in interviews that Built To Spill isn’t innovative, that the band isn’t creating anything new. And maybe he’s right. But what band is? Aren’t they all just a synthesis of their influences? Martsch might sound at times like J Mascis or Neil Young, but Built To Spill sounds only like Built To Spill. Though the band never found mainstream success and has yet to have a hit single, its most recent LP, There Is No Enemy, cracked the top 50 on the Billboard album chart, the highest spot for any BTS record to date. How else can we say it, Doug? More albums, please. Some of the best songs of the past 20 years are Built To Spill songs, certainly, but I can’t praise them all. Look, I know what you’re thinking. “Car” didn’t make either list.

:: The Five Most Overrated Built To Spill Songs
1. “Built To Spill” (1993)

The self-titled track. Bands should never do this. It always feels forced, not to mention indulgent and clumsy. Like the titular line in a movie. Of course, audiences love to hear this Ultimate Alternative Wavers track live because it name-checks the band they’re currently watching. Outside of the concert setting, it kind of takes me out of it, though.

2. “Joyride” (1996)
An adolescent punk song about heartbreak with a sense of humor. Possibly the most meta, self-conscious song since the “Song That Never Ends,” though only a fraction as annoying. With the lines “This part of the song is called the second verse/Sounds just like the first verse but with different words/It only has three chords and they are A E D” and “You’ve heard it all before/It’s the same old shit,” it’s a bit too much. The riff that links the verses is catchy. And I like the field recordings (the beer can opening, the birds chirping, engines revving and then the sound of the car crashing), and the way they fit in with the music and overall song is great. Unfortunately, the kind of snotty way Martsch sings it, combined with some of the lyrics, makes me cringe and outweighs all the positives.

3. “Fly Around My Pretty Little Miss” (2001)
I’ll admit the first time I heard this Ancient Melodies Of The Future track, it made me very happy. It had been a few years since anything had been released by the band, and out of nowhere it dropped this upbeat gumdrop. The song could be an Apples In Stereo song. After repeated listening, though, it feels emotionally thin compared to some of Built To Spill’s other really great pop songs (“The Weather,” “Twin Falls,” “Car”), not to mention it sounds overproduced and gimmicky. It’s surprising “Fly Around” didn’t become a huge hit single or at least soundtrack a commercial, considering how catchy the melody is. I’ll be trying to get it out of my head for days.

4. “Center Of The Universe” (1999)
Don’t look now. Thankfully, this one is under three minutes. The chunky lead octave riff that opens this song reminds me of great headaches I’ve had throughout my life. It’s a bit out of tune and sea sick. A song about not being able to get your point across. Built To Spill has better songs about the same subject. The weakest spot on Keep It Like A Secret, the band’s best album.

5. “Stop The Show” (1997)
I’m gonna say it: Perfect From Now On is overrated. Recently resurrected by the band for a tour of full-album performances, the record is too jammy and the songs are too long and sleepy compared to the LPs that came before and after. I think that both There’s Nothing Wrong With Love and Keep It Like A Secret are not only better albums, but better suited to full concert performance because of the “hits” each album contains. Perfect From Now On has a lot of great jams, but it’s virtually singleless and would not be as effective at whipping up a crowd as the other two. I think a big part of what is worth praising about this record is that this was the band’s major-label debut. BTS had just put out an album with “Car” and “Twin Falls” (two songs with huge radio potential), signed to Warner Bros. and then released this eight-song middle-finger of a record with some of the songs pushing nine minutes and none of them coming in under four-and-a-half minutes. It seemed almost like overcompensation against claims of “sell out.” This song in particular is a good example of the extra fat that should have been trimmed. For the version on 2000’s Live, the band edited out the three-minute drowsy intro—getting right to the good part.

:: The Five Most Underrated Built To Spill Songs
1. “Time Trap” (1999)

This song builds from a slow ethereal crescendo to some heavy-swinging riffs that cut out right before what must be one of the grooviest, funkiest chord progressions I’ve ever heard. Then it speeds up and builds again to the end with soaring guitars and a pounding tribal rhythm. You can’t help but move to this Keep It Like A Secret track. “Do you want to save your life?” I think you just did.

2. “Virginia Reel Around The Fountain” (1998)
“Virginia” isn’t a Built To Spill song, so it can’t fairly be considered one of its underrated tracks, but I picked this Halo Benders number to make a point: Martsch doesn’t have to make Built To Spill albums. He could collaborate with any number of great singers and musicians and put out a good record. He has said recently that another Halo Benders album is in the not-too-distant future and that he and Isaac Brock (Modest Mouse) have discussed getting together and jamming. Can’t wait.

3. “They Got Away” (2007)
Martsch has long professed his love of reggae and soul, and in 2007, BTS released this single (with a b-side cover of “Re-Arrange” by the Gladiators). This song shows that Built To Spill doesn’t have to sound like Built To Spill. After hearing this, I wish the band would make a reggae record. Actually, Built To Spill could do a series of different genre albums that would probably be amazing.

4. “Lift” (2002)
Martsch solo album Now You Know is a stripped-down, mostly acoustic and slide-guitar blues record. It sounds miles away from Built To Spill. It was well received critically when it was released, but what if the same album had been put out as a Built To Spill record? Would it have been received any differently? It might have sold more copies, based on name recognition, but how would critics and fans have reacted if this had been the BTS release between Ancient Melodies and You In Reverse? Minds might have been blown. Which is probably why he had to release Now You Know under his own name.

5. “Hindsight” (2009)
The new album. Sure, it’s Built To Spill’s highest charting release to date and it’s been critically praised already by just about everyone. How could that be underrated, right? Well, some people had written the band off after the last two records. But There Is No Enemy is diverse and inspired, definitely one of the best releases of this year and—what’s even more impressive—one of the best of the band’s career. There’s the heartfelt pop of “Hindsight,” the shimmery disco of “Good Ol’ Boredom,” the post-punk “Pat” (which could be a Wrens song), the mariachi horns on “Things Fall Apart.” Built To Spill is still doing new and interesting things, and There Is No Enemy is definitely worth a listen if you got off board at some point.

—Edward Fairchild

Comments are closed.