Built to Spill
You in Reverse
oug Martsch, the unassuming creative head of Built to Spill, has quietly occupied a space as one of the giants of indie rock for over ten years. Throughout the Pacific Northwest indie rock boom of the late 90s, he appeared in various guises, playing slightly surreal, childlike ditties with staunch primitivist/K Records owner/indie auteur Calvin Johnson in The Halo Benders and making flailing, propulsive rock with his first group, Treepeople besides masterminding his main group. Bearded, paunchy, and sanguine, he radiates the sort of charmed innocence that appeals to people’s idea of what indie rock should be; a stage for the mild-mannered Everymen and women of the world to live out their furtive rock star dreams.
As an artist, he has patented a meandering songwriting style that treats traditional pop song structures like colorful sheets of construction paper that can be cut up with an amateur’s messy gusto and recombined into any shape or form. What sounds like an obvious chorus could be jostled to the front and conscripted to serve as an intro for a song to which it bears no obvious relation; another band’s melodic bridge might, in Martsch’s hands, find itself at the end of a song, trailing off into silence. The music would just stop, the unresolved chord hanging pendulously in the air, and you would sit up blinking, realizing belatedly that the song had ended.
The most rewarding aspect of this method is the open-ended sense of possibility it creates. Listening to Built to Spill, it’s possible to entertain the romantic notion that these are not discrete songs at all, but rather little snatches from the ongoing river of music in Doug’s endlessly fertile mind, where the song continues uninterrupted, piling up in a never-ending babble of guitar grooves, drum fills, and evocative turns of phrase.
This approach hit its high-water mark with 1997’s Perfect from Now On, when bassist Brett Nelson and drummer Scott Plouf joined Martsch to solidify the band’s current lineup. On its first two records, Built to Spill sounded endearingly ramshackle; suddenly, they sounded cavernous and invincible. Backed by Nelson and Plouf’s rock-solid foundation, Martsch’s guitar explorations shot skyward, and his off-the-cuff, cryptic musings became positively oracular with this support.
But Built to Spill has released two albums with this set-up since then, and while Keep It Like a Secret still had some miracles coursing in its veins (“Carry The Zero”), you could sense the magic ebbing away as the initial thrill of discovery among the three turned to familiarity. The strong wind of inspiration pushing their sails slowed to a puff, and by 2001’s flat, complacent Ancient Melodies of the Future, they had drifted to a halt.
It would be nice to say, then, doing my best impression of a Music Critic, that their new full-length You in Reverse is a “return to form.” The best I can say is that it is intermittently thrilling, the first record since Perfect to show any of that record’s gleaming promise, but it is nonetheless brought aground by some of the same problems that dogged the last two LPs.
The first thing you notice about You in Reverse is its clear-eyed focus. These songs sound written, not aimlessly jammed into being. The guitar lines still smear at the edges, and the rhythm section still pulses with deliberation, but here, the pillowy sound the band makes has actual structures abutting it. The stately opening track “Goin’ Against Your Mind” is the best example, the giddiest burst of sustained joy the band has produced in years. The guitars swoop and cry, circling above Plouf’s insistent motorik beat, and the quizzical lift of Martsch’s vocal melody suits his moony insights. At one point in the song’s eight-minute run, the lights dim, drums fading slowly to silence, guitars imitating the lonely sound of cars passing, and Martsch sings quietly: “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’s an absolutely perfect, goosebump-inducing moment, which is only boosted by the slow build-up and guitar explosion that follows.
Unfortunately, nothing else on the record manages to scale these transcendent heights. I hate to say this about such an intuitive and cozy band dynamic, but Martsch needs to shake up his lineup. He used to write skipping pop tunes as often as he stretched languorously into jammy epics, but his band’s distinctive sound coats everything in the same high-calorie, 70’s rock sheen. This sleepy, heavy-footed thud drags the pace on fleeter numbers like the effervescent riff-rocker “Conventional Wisdom,” or the jangly 50’s- shuffle of “Liar.” Despite their limitations, you can hear them trying to reach beyond these sonic constraints to find new sounds: “Mess With Time” is anchored by a hard-driving, distortion-heavy guitar riff that rocks more ferociously than anything since Doug’s days in Treepeople, while “Traces” features a mournful chamber pop chord fit for Morrissey. But too often they are pulled back into the mid-tempo soup of “Gone” or “Just a Habit.”
Their marvelous indie jamming still yields some revelatory moments, notably the wistful interlude that comes four minutes into “Gone.” And Doug still proves that he can effortlessly reel off enigmatic little homilies like “Some things never change / Something’s gotta change that.” Maybe such modest pleasures should be enough. But part of the joy of listening to Built to Spill was the charged atmosphere of unpredictability, the sense that any moment the song would scurry down some side path. Now they are reliable purveyors of dreamy guitar-rock comfort food, and inevitably the shrunken horizons smart a little.
Reviewed by: Jayson Greene
Reviewed on: 2006-04-11