Built to Last

Idaho's Built to Spill endures.

If, in 20 years or so, someone asks me to describe the major innovations in rock music at the turn of the century, I'll hand them a Built to Spill record. Even though time always judges the bands of the past in a way we can't really predict in the here and now, Built to Spill will still remain one of the most influential bands of the '90s. Those of us who listen to way too much music know all too well how dangerous it is to write about a band in this way; it tends to come across as gushy and borderline ridiculous. How do I even begin to explain the bridge that guitarist and songwriter Doug Martsch and his bandmates built between the laconic pop of 1994's There's Nothing Wrong With Love and Perfect From Now On--which was the first record I listened to stoned, realizing, damn, this is why people do this--without waxing sentimental?

At first, Idaho would seem an unlikely place for a band like Built to Spill to emerge from; but true American rock and roll is always born of small-town America, with the most original sounds growing out of the average. So Idaho, with its vast, cold potato fields, mountains and moon-crater-esque basalt formations, makes the perfect foundation for Built to Spill's swirling guitar landscapes. The members of Built to Spill don't just write songs; they write pieces, with movements and melodic layers, spacey yet homey. If rock and roll is by definition abrasive in the innovative sense of the word, then Built to Spill is roll and rock and rock and roll and roll and rock, to quote from my favorite Web cartoon, Radiskull and Devil Doll. To be able to take your standard guitar, bass and drums (with the occasional keyboard) set-up and turn it into the kind of music Built to Spill makes deserves nothing but these kind of gushy and borderline ridiculous statements. The music's really that good.

Built to Spill's discography begins in 1993 with Ultimate Alternative Wavers, a record whose sound was in line with the true Northwestern underground, flourishing in the shadows of those other bands whose names we don't even have to drop. The guitars were a bit disharmonic, Martsch not singing so much as crying; not a tear-shedding crying but a sort of withheld vocal wail. Then came There's Nothing Wrong With Love, where the pop songs came off a bit smoother, a bit more effectively fragmented. It was this record that produced "Twin Falls," one of the saddest indie songs ever written (which prompted a band as glossy as Ben Folds Five to proclaim on Naked Baby Photos that they'd be perfectly content existing as a Built to Spill cover band). "7-up I touched her thumb, and she knew it was me/although she couldn't see/unless, of course, she peeked," sang Martsch, and all those terrible grade school memories suddenly had a place to go.

"Twin Falls" fell seamlessly into "Some," which foreshadowed the songwriting route Built to Spill was about to embark on; Perfect From Now On's songs blended into each other, morphing into different rhythms midsong and echoing phrasings from others; little 17-year-old me suddenly felt that this world, with this kind of music in it, was not so bad after all. (Just for fun, here's a quote from the review I wrote of that record for my high school paper: "The extensions of emotion on this album and the creative uses and combinations of instruments that travel from one state of consciousness to another is just absolutely beautiful." No wonder I had no friends.)

Three years later, Keep It Like a Secret snuck onto record store shelves, and I was a little disappointed: Where was the innovation? Built to Spill had peaked and plateaued, it seemed, and I was still hungry for records that could redefine my world view. But what I didn't realize then was that evolutionary change can be made in sudden leaps with long periods of no change in between. So Perfect From Now On was the leap, and every subsequent album is a generational extension of that evolution. Built to Spill's record titles, linked together, form a poetic interpretation of the band's trajectory: They began with Ultimate Alternative Wavers Where There's Nothing Wrong With Love, especially during the Normal Years. But they'll be Perfect From Now On, and they'll Keep It Like a Secret; Now You Know these Ancient Melodies of the Future.

Built to Spill hasn't released a record as a band since 2001's Ancient Melodies of the Future, a record filled with reverberating guitars and songs with simple themes of love and the human condition, delivered with optimistic detachment: "Happiness will only happen when it can," sings Martsch. "As long as it's talking with you, talk of the weather will do." The record is less liquid than Perfect From Now On or Keep It Like a Secret, with each song standing on its own; but within each song are the same signature Built to Spill elements: extended melodies carried by guitars and the vocals, layered with precision over the percussion.

Doug Martsch's 2002 first solo album, Now You Know (2002, Warner Bros.), reworked the blues, Martsch-style, which means melodies driven by cool-sounding alternately-tuned slide guitars and lyrics like "I hung around like another pronoun, familiar but lacking a name." Martsch's reworking of Mississippi Fred McDowell's "Woke Up This Morning (With My Mind on Jesus)" is more true to the roots behind a blues song than, say, those dancey Moby collages on Play, but just playin' the blues ain't where Martsch's true abilities lie. Perhaps, though, this is where the next evolutionary leap will come in: to take rock back to its blues origins and somehow redefine it in a way no one has thought of before is something a band like Built to Spill does best.

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