The Over/Under: Built To Spill


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

12 replies on “The Over/Under: Built To Spill”

there’s a BTS appearance on the new PRIDS album this coming March… people wanting more BTS can check that out…. not that the prids aren’t worth it on their own, but there you go.

It all really sounds good to me ultimately because there’s nothing like it out there… BTS showed up in Santa Ana, CA this summer out of nowhere and shared a bill with Woods (awsome) and Kurt Vile (very good). BTS played a song that night that I had forgotten about almost completely. It was “Stab” from TNWWL. It was just so damned good. Also, I recently revisited “The Rebels Not In” by the HBs and ended up ripping above and beyond “Virginia.” It’s pretty cool actually once you get used to Calvin Johnson’s voice.

You crazy, fool. And let me tell you why. The last time ‘Built to Spill’ was played live was around 2005. And at that, it was a sporadic entry into the live set.

Picking ‘Hindsight’ as an underrated track is ridiculous. As you point out, the album just came out, but Hindsight was the teaser track, released online before the album came out. Added to that, BTS has been playing the tune at shows for two years — making some 60 setlist appearances between 08 and 09. If a song ‘hits’ from this album, it will be Hindsight.

Same with Virginia Reel — it’s been a concert staple for a decade, and was included on the live album. If you want to pick an underrated BTS/Halo Benders track, go for Bomb Shelter Pt. 2, which they played at every show in 2006 with a video of Calvin projected above the band doing the vocals.

I dunno, I’ll give you Center of the Universe as being overrated, but the truth is, picking Joyride — a fifteen year old 7″ which they play like 5-10 times a year (out of 65-85 shows a year) — as ‘overrated’ is just silly.

You should’ve called this article ‘Some Songs By BTS I Like, and Some I Don’t’. This isn’t really an over/under.

cool article but whole-heartedly disagree with the idea that Perfect from Now On is overrated. If there’s one BTS album I would love to see performed start to finish that would be the one, hands down.

I like much of what Dan had to say, but I can’t claim anywhere near his expertise in regards to their live song selections. I generally disagree with picking solo songs and albums as underrated “songs” for a specific “band”. I think it’s a good way to sell albums that the music critic likes, but it goes against the spirit of the article. In general, it’s hard to find a Built to Spill song that is rated, much less one that is overrated. I think “Big Dipper” is a great song, but it might be the only one I would call overrated, only because I know some people who are aware of it, and there are plenty of other Built to Spill songs they should be aware of first.

If you are stretching to find “Built to Spill songs” that are underrated, I would dare to include “Wherever You Go” off You in Reverse, and “Still Flat” off The Normal Years. The opening guitar riff on “Wherever You Go” is one of their clearest statements on the album, and the song brings the band to a darker, nastier, and more powerful level than songs that the casual listener might find appealing. “Still Flat” must be considered one of their best early songs along with “Car”, “Joyride”, “Dystopian Dream Girl”, “Big Dipper”, and possibly “Girl” or “Reasons”. And I have to give Martsch some props for the lyric “Because of where you came from, you know where it’s at”. In general, the dynamics of the song should entitle it to a Best of Built to Spill Mix, and I can imagine it would be great to hear live.

Lastly, does anyone else think “She’s Real” off the Caustic Resin EP is one of the most beautiful songs that Martsch has been a part of? If you are looking for an example of how indie rock music and unrefined vocals can create something that rivals the simplistic love stories told in such popular songs as “Brown Eyed Girl”, this underrated song would be my argument.

I agree with everything you said in the main part of the article but nothing in your overrated/underrated parts made sense. Not to Dan on that one. However, the point made about “preview” that would totally kick ass if those were to ever be recorded/released. At least the “midnight star” part as a 7″… awesome guitar solo!

Yeah, I fully agree with the pre-rating commentary. More BTS=good, Doug’s guitar work guesting would be beautiful, and the side projects we HAVE seen have all been great. I basically agree with the commenter who said, ‘songs have to be rated before they can be overrated’ and I just think BTS is shockingly overrated.

My live info (I’m one of those geeks) came from the excellent fan site I would add the early cover of Daniel Johnston’s ‘Somethings Last a Long Time’ is amazingly beautiful.

I disagree that Doug should make more records. Every Built to Spill record is good because of the time/effect he put into it. The new one is no exception. Today you have all these artists rushing CDs out that suck. We should be praising an artist that takes him time.

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