Hard to Perfect
Built to Spill revisits Perfect From Now On
by Jeremy Ohmes
Neil Young. J Mascis. Doug Martsch. You could call them the Holy Trinity of high-pitched guitar heroes — each one with his own style of rough-edged solos, wistful lyrics and a creaky, tender voice tying it all together. Young, especially with Crazy Horse, of course made it cool to kick out unpolished, sweeping, single-note solos whilst singing with a perpetual cold. And Mascis, with Dinosaur Jr., took Young’s torch to new nasally heights, cracking his vocal cords over colossal, feedback-laden, super technical guitar acrobatics. It was Martsch, though, with his band Built to Spill, who not only carried on the squeaky singing and expansive soloing lineage of Young and Mascis but who also took the two guitar gods’ sound and made it shinier and smarter. In turn, Martsch, the balding, bearded guy from Boise, Idaho, became the indie rock crowd’s guitar darling, and the album that solidified his status was Built to Spill’s major label debut, Perfect From Now On.
It took Martsch three tries to perfect Perfect From Now On. The Idahoan formed Built to Spill in 1993 with the idea that he’d use a different set of musicians for every album, and the group’s first two albums featured a rotating cast of Boise and Seattle scenesters. But when he applied the loose aggregate idea to his Warner Bros. debut, employing only a new drummer and no bassist, he discovered that the spark just wasn’t there for his new set of songs. Between this lack of chemistry and an unusual amount of creative control, courtesy of the major label, Martsch soon realized that he needed some sort of consistency supporting him. Recruiting his former bassist Brett Nelson and Spinanes drummer Scott Plouf, Martsch recorded the album a second time with Northwest producer Phil Ek — only to have the master tapes destroyed by heat during a Seattle to Boise drive. Martsch and company went back to Seattle and tried again, and it turned out that the third time was the charm.
Perfect From Now On was released in the first month of 1997 and, probably much to Warner Bros.’ chagrin, featured only one song that checked in under the five-minute mark … just barely. Most of the album’s eight songs lingered around six to eight minutes, but what Perfect lacked in radio-friendliness, it more than made up for in an onslaught of catchy hooks and completely innovative guitar interplay. With Ek’s crisp-as-a-Seattle-morning production, Perfect poured a bucket of cold water on guitar rock and snapped the genre out of its stale and formulaic funk. Guitars jam without sounding jammy; cellos weave in and out without sounding orchestrated; wah-wahs give way to flangers without sounding gimmicky; and tempos suddenly switch without sounding disjointed. And throughout, Martsch’s trebly pipes leak softhearted slacker catchphrases. In an interview, Martsch said that “[Perfect] was basically a bunch of little parts all getting stuck together onto a record.” In a sense, the album is the ultimate cut-and-paste project, but never has music so fragmented and haphazard sounded so seamless and remarkably emotional.
Built to Spill plays Perfect From Now On. 8 pm, Saturday, Sept. 6. McDonald Theatre. $20 adv., $23 door