In 1993, Doug Martsch of Seattle’s Treepeople returned to Boise, Idaho to escape the city, stop touring and record with an open-ended cast of backup musicians as Built to Spill. Over the next few albums and singles, Martsch proved himself to be one of indie-rock’s most striking songwriters and guitarists. His songs are divided into sections that go beyond verse-chorus-verse form, with pop ditties that stop halfway and turn into glorious landscapes of mangled guitar strings. His lyrics reflect on life and love with intellectual angst.
The magic of Ultimate Alternative Wavers is that, although the unwound post-punk songs reach and even exceed the nine-minute mark, Martsch (here spelling his given name Dug) manages to endow each jagged, twisted guitar line with the emotion of the song, whether it be anger, introspection or love. “Revolution” and the band’s theme song, “Built to Spill,” are both excellent, but the standout is the infectious “Nowhere Nothin’ Fuckup,” which begins as a critical anthem for losers and slackers and ends as a requiem for the entire country, with Martsch chanting, “In America / Every puddle / Gasoline rainbow.”
There’s Nothing Wrong With Love telescopes Martsch’s experimental urges into a focused album of three-to-four-minute deconstructed pop songs about growing up. “Cleo,” named after Martsch’s son, Benjamin Cleo, may be the least corny rock song ever written from the point of view of a baby being born. Singing “Living in the womb, running out of room, got to greet the sun and moon and —” Martsch breaks off mid-sentence for some serious string-twisting. “Twin Falls” begins with Martsch at age two as he traces the evolution of his first crush on a girl, from a family Christmas to physical contact in an elementary-school game of seven-up. And “Distopian Dream Girl” boils down all the anger and frustration of adolescence into a disagreement over musical taste: “My stepfather looks just like David Bowie, but he hates David Bowie / I think Bowie’s cool, I think Lodger rules — step-dad’s a fool.” One of the album’s cleverest moments comes at the end, when a voice announces a “preview of the next Built to Spill record.” The band then proceeds to deliver a series of 15-second song clips that, one by one, parody punk, new wave, power pop and metal ballad.
The Normal Years is a 10-song rarities compilation of tracks by every lineup of the band between 1993 and ’95. It includes a cover of “Some Things Last a Long Time,” co-written by Jad Fair and Daniel Johnston.
Teaming up with Caustic Resin, a Boise band led by guitarist Brett Netson (who had played on the first Built to Spill album), Martsch returned to more stretched-out songs on Built to Spill Caustic Resin. The EP mixes two of Martsch’s songs, the advice-laden opuses “When Not Being Stupid Is Not Enough” and “One Thing,” a Caustic Resin number (the instrumental “Shit Brown Eyes”) and a Kicking Giant cover, the punky love song “She’s Real.”
In a successful transition to a major label, a transitional lineup made Perfect From Now On, introducing Scott Plouf (ex-Spinanes) as the third (but seemingly final) drummer in as many albums. There’s Nothing Wrong With Love bassist Brett Nelson (on his way to becoming the band’s other mainstay) is still in place, joined (and this is where it gets a bit confusing) by Caustic Resin leader Brett Netson (who played on the first BTS album) on guitar and bass and cellist John McMahon. Eight long tracks make up a gorgeous album, more restrained than not, with Martsch’s wavery Neil Young tenor the most unsettling element. The songwriting and arrangements are full of deft, imaginative touches, signifying a new level of ambition to which the band (aided no doubt by producer Phil Ek) proves itself completely equal. “Velvet Waltz,” “Randy Described Eternity” and the wah-wah-flecked “I Would Hurt a Fly” are highlights.
The more consistently electric Keep It Like a Secret strips the staff down to the core of Martsch, Plouf and Nelson, but cohesion and power don’t yield great results. It’s pure BTS, but without enough sparkle or rough-hewn beauty to be memorable. “Carry the Zero” shimmers with lovely melodic turns and pungent lyrics (“Found the pieces / We counted them all alone / Didn’t add up / Forgot to carry a zero”), but “You Were Right” fails to make something fresh out of a collection of classic rock phrases (“You were right when you said all that glitters isn’t gold / You were right when you said all we are is dust in the wind / You were right when you said we’re all just bricks in the wall / And when you said manic depression’s a frustrated mess”).
Recorded in three different cities (New York, Seattle and Denver) in 1999, Live ups the guitar volume with Jim Roth throughout and Netson joining for four of the nine songs. The selection samples the band’s catalogue fairly, with two from Keep It Like a Secret, three from Perfect From Now On, one from There’s Nothing Wrong With Love and covers of Neil Young (“Cortez the Killer,” stretched out to 20-plus wailing noise-storm minutes), Love as Laughter (“Singing Sores Make Perfect Swords”) and the Halo Benders (“Virginia Reel Around the Fountain”). Longtime friend Sam Coomes of Quasi plays keyboards on “Broken Chairs,” which takes a full 19 minutes to close the album. Jam on it!
The trio’s unprecedented personnel stability does aid the cause on Ancient Melodies of the Future, which has muddied sound in spots but careful, detailed and varied playing. The delightful “Fly Around My Pretty Little Miss” and “The Weather” finish the album with flourish. Martsch’s lyrics are surprisingly on the skimpy side here, except for a couple of the tunes, including “In Your Mind” and the Dobro-driven “Happiness,” an odd but detailed mea culpa: “Haven’t given half the time to half the people and half the things I planned / You don’t have to be so cruel / Cause all I do is a little less than what I can.”
Rare though it may be for a band that’s been going for more than a decade to suddenly take an appreciable creative step forward, but that’s the story on You in Reverse, which is the finest Built to Spill musical adventure so far. Roth is an official member on this album and Netson is on four tracks, but it’s more likely significant that Phil Ek’s name is nowhere to be seen. (Actually, no producer of any sort is credited.) Martsch’s singing is better than ever; on the lengthy opening “Goin’ Against Your Mind,” he employs a light near-falsetto that contains none of the feckless uncertainty of his usual tone and yet holds its own against a rising onslaught of guitar energy. The peppy “Conventional Wisdom” (a heavy pop number which starts off like Dinosaur Jr on speed and then drops back for a gorgeous two-part bridge before a lengthy trek to the noise-guitar woods), “Traces” and the echoed “Liar” are equally ingenious, all with seriously accomplished singing. For variety, Sam Coomes’ organ shapes “Gone,” but that’s just an obvious marker on an album that is altogether free of repetition. It’s conceivable the songs could benefit from a little judicious trimming (only three of the 10 are under five minutes), but maybe not. You in Reverse is a tremendous record — engaging, enveloping, engrossing.
If Built to Spill makes rock on the verge of collapse, Caustic Resin’s music epitomizes the collapse. The band’s songs are acid-rock nightmares, a mess of fuzzy guitar, distorted vocals and meandering drumbeats. The trio’s first album, Body Love Body Hate, is filled with cocky loathing. Agonized screams and lyrics (the few intelligible lines are about suicide, murder and pain) combine with songs that explore density and recording-studio knobs at the expense of melody and linearity.
Fly Me to the Moon is an improvement. Caustic Resin comes off like a cross between the Jimi Hendrix Experience and Jesus Lizard. Thick, coagulated guitar-and-bass jams threaten to smother Netson’s lyrics, which are better and clearer than the last album’s, even if the topics are the same: “Kill You If You Want Me To,” “A Fistful of Violence.”
Built to Spill bassist Brett Nelson (not Netson) leads Butterfly Train, anchoring lyrics of lost love to gently driving pop-punk on Building Distrust From Trust. Singing in the dulcet but cracking voice of a jilted lover, Nelson vacillates between affection for the past and hate for the present, switching between haltingly strummed verses and furious choruses. He comes off so sweet and so hurt that, by the end of the album, one wonders what kind of monster could have broken up with him.