April 20, 2006

Built To Last

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Guitar gods are supposed to swallow too many speedballs, go prostrate and choke to death on their own vomit, blood and tongues before the age of 30. Or at least they should, since ageing peacefully presents the risk of becoming increasingly benign and eventually hitting a nadir, popping out hits for adult contemporary radio like Eric Clapton. Maybe that’s why Doug Martsch has always seemed like the unlikeliest of guitar heroes – he lacks the bawdy brio and swagger of a true rock star, and sex appeal is not one of his strong suits. At the same time, though, I would die of arrhythmia if he ever started churning out crap as lame as “My Father’s Eyes.” Martsch may be ageing, but perhaps the best evidence that he hasn’t lost any of his vitality can be found in the opening minutes of Built to Spill’s latest album, You in Reverse.

I could bore everyone with a paragraph detailing Built to Spill’s importance to indie rock and their ascent to the underground throne in the wake of Pavement’s fissure, but nearly a decade removed from their landmark Perfect From Now On, such an account is irrelevant. The simple fact is that Built to Spill does not have to prove anything to anyone, and if they wanted to pull a Coldplay and start poorly rehashing the same sound and song over and over again, that would be okay because they’ve earned it. And for a while, it looked like Doug Martsch could very well become a second version of Chris Martin, only infinitely cooler and well endowed with hipster cred.

But the five years of rest since the release of the moribund Ancient Melodies of the Future seems to have done Martsch and Co. some good, and You in Reverse teems with life and wild energy throughout. Built to Spill has no forbearers to pay respect to – they are the forbearers, and they have returned from indie Valhalla to teach these young wannabes a thing or two about the craft.

Beginning with an insistent and frenetic backbeat that is increasingly confronted with layers and layers of caterwauling guitars, opener “Goin’ Against Your Mind” is an astonishing track, one of the best Built to Spill has ever done, and brings the album to an absolute boil. One guitar matches the breakneck drumming step for step, another launches off like a Roman candle, and yet another swells into white squalls of distortion. Martsch doesn’t even begin singing until two minutes into the piece, and already the song has hit a feverish pitch. This is more likely to induce head bopping and random torso gyrations than anything Franz Ferdinand has put out, and Built to Spill doesn’t even stake their reputation on being danceable.

Martsch has always been something of a magician when it comes to song craft, endlessly pulling out proverbial rabbits and shifting his songs in the most unexpected of directions. Just when it seems like “Goin’ Against Your Mind” is about to exhaust itself, Martsch finds a way to keep it going, and the song roars onward for nearly nine glorious minutes, breathlessly driving towards a screaming finale. In between the vapor trails of guitar are some of Martsch’s most affecting lyrics to date.

Whether it is his cockeyed sense of detail or his nasally delivery, Martsch has the unique quality of being one of the most disarming frontmen going, and his geeky, almost childish yelp tends to make otherwise cheesy lines sound positively profound. When he delivers a verse like “When I was a kid I saw a light / Floating high above the trees one night / Thought it was an alien / Turned out to be just God,” it is both hilarious, shocking and heartbreaking.

The obvious question, then, is can the rest of the album stand up to the enormous expectations created by such a powerful first track. And it is here, unfortunately, where You in Reverse stumbles in the dark of “Goin’ Against Your Mind’s” enormous shadow. Maybe it’s just me, but I never imagined that Built to Spill would sound like such a rock band. Many of the songs that follow are straight out rockers, replete with somewhat predictable and unnecessary guitar solos. “Liar” contains the blissful disconnection and heartfelt sincerity that the band is known for, but “Conventional Wisdom” and “Gone” sound more like they should be blaring out of the back of a pick-up than a Brooklyn apartment, the former delving into a completely pointless four-minute solo while the latter drifts into an organ section that is about as energizing as a morphine drip. Long, shifting songs have been Built to Spill’s staple, but here many of the shifts are jarring, executed without Perfect From Now On’s subtlety, and strip the songs of their better elements instead of accentuating them.

But this is Built to Spill, and underestimating them would be a mistake. Failing to let the album drift into mediocrity, Martsch leaves us with another gem in album closer “The Wait,” a song every bit as lovely as the first track. Here they get it right, and after delivering a nice string of wordplays (“You wait for something that will make the waiting worth the wait”), Martsch sends the song into a swirling tangle of fizzed-out guitars that drips with sonic nostalgia for the bygone days of the ’90s.

In truth, You in Reverse only suffers under the high expectations that the band creates for itself. They’re still more impressive and innovative than groups half their age, and You in Reverse is still better than 90 percent of what passes for “indie rock.” If anything, it promises that the band still has creativity to burn, and we certainly haven’t seen the last of Built to Spill’s high-wire act.

Archived article by Zach Jones