From the Devoted
Built to Spill’s new album flies to rock ’n’ roll heaven
by Rick Levin
If there really is a God and he really has a rock ’n’ roll heaven, he should reserve at least an opening slot on the bill for Built to Spill, especially for the Boise-based band’s reclusive founder and singer-songwriter, Doug Martsch. When it comes to making music how music should be made, Martsch is the real deal. In the space of two decades, Built to Spill — which also includes crackerjack musicians Brett Nelson on bass, drummer Scott Plouf and guitarists Brett Netson and Jim Roth — has been steadily evolving, pushing genres and barriers with subtle integrity and, in the process, creating a unique and uncompromising body of work. Their sound — an amalgamation of melodic smarts, emotional honesty, artistic ambition and lyrical seeking, all coalesced in downright catchy pop chops — has garnered them the sort of cultish love among fans reserved for bands like the Velvet Underground, The Smiths, Sonic Youth, Motorhead or the Melvins. Like those bands, BtS has carved a niche and practically defined a genre completely its own.
Granted, such devotional fanatical praise is unseemly in anyone other than Lester Bangs, but he’s dead, so fuck that. Rock, unless we’ve all forgotten in the slog of emo bullshit, downloadable dreck and retro this-and-that, is about unadulterated reckless soulful joy, exactly the emotion Built to Spill elicits in fans. While Martsch, a serious artist, would be the last person in the world to take himself so seriously, one gets the feeling from Built to Spill’s new album, There Is No Enemy, that he’s been through some serious shit lately, at least creatively speaking. It’s a tad disingenuous for anyone who has stuck with BtS all along to deny that, after the back-to-back indie masterpieces of Perfect From Now On (1997) and Keep It Like a Secret (1999), the band appeared to be a little lost in the woods. Both Ancient Melodies of the Future (2001) and You In Reverse (2006) seemed to be oddly transitory, sometimes directionless and uncapped works — more like unfinished sculptures than cracked busts.
That said, their new album, a crystalline piece of anthem pop alchemized under the coal-to-diamond pressure of artistic blood-sweat-and-tears, might just be the band’s best yet. From the burbling tech-echo that opens the gem of a title track, “Aisle 13,” to the propulsive, pounding chug-and-rip of “Oh Yeah,” this cycle of songs finds a perfect balance among the band’s strongest instincts — namely, Martsch’s knack for unforgettable hooks and Built to Spill’s penchant for soaring, old-school guitar swoon. Calculated restraint and sheer exuberance create a tension that makes the whole shooting match vibrate with an uncommon intensity. There’s not a weak moment on the album. The thing is luminous.
In hindsight, those “lost in the woods” years now seem to have been leading to this very crucial moment in time for BtS. It’s as though all those searing, furious solos and stabbing-the-stars jams of the last few years were somehow punching a hole through an artistic stalemate, tearing at the scrim, and now the light has flooded through. But when you get down to it, artistic peaks and valleys are issues for idiot rock critics and chat room historians to discuss and debate and jerk off about. What matters for and to a band like Built to Spill is not relevance but meaning and significance and, alas, fun, and There Is No Enemy is pregnant with all of these and more.
Built to Spill, Disco Doom, Finn Riggins, Doug Martsch DJ set. 8 pm Sunday, Nov. 15. WOW Hall • $22 adv., $25 door.