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[whitespace] Built to Spill
Built to Last: With its retro prog-rock sound, Built to Spill has a good future reviving the music of the past.

Spill's Way

There's nothing wrong with being a rock throwback when you revive the past as well as Built to Spill does

By Gina Arnold

ONE BEAUTIFUL late afternoon last summer, while visiting Seattle for the opening of the Experience Music Project, I heard Neil Young's song "Cortez the Killer" arching over the Seattle Center as if it had been etched on sound waves made of air. It sounded just wonderful, but puzzling, until I realized that it was being played not by Young but by Built to Spill, a Boise, Idaho, band that is revered in Seattle and is catching on in the rest of the country as well.

It seemed an odd choice for a group that often gets compared to Crazy Horse anyway: odd, or possibly just reverent. Most listeners won't need such a blatant hint as to what band occupies the highest spot in Built to Spill's canon. But that doesn't mean that Built to Spill is derivative, just that, musically, it is something of a throwback.

The band's last two LPs were appealingly called Keep It Like a Secret and Perfect From Now On, and the latest LP has an even more apt title, since Ancient Melodies of the Future (Warner Bros.) are exactly what this band purveys.

When you hear songs like "Strange" and "Trimmed and Burning," you can't help but wonder, Is it Neil Young? The Rolling Stones? Poco? Traffic? It's as if Built to Spill is busily replacing classic-rock icons with newer, but similar, music--and it's about time, too, since most of those older acts are on their last legs.

IN FACT, Built to Spill should be grouped in the Seattle school of hard rock. Though not a grunge band per se, it emerged from nearby Olympia's K Records scene, which has plenty of associations with Sub Pop. Many of those bands actually did look to the early '70s for their main influences and few as much as Built to Spill, which chose to forego the fat-bottom rhythms of Black Sabbathy metal, retaining instead the clearly written guitar solos and lyrical quirks of that era.

Singer Doug Martsch was in the band Treepeople and plays with K Records founder Calvin Johnson's side band, the Halo Benders, both of which were highly quirky, individualistic groups. In Built to Spill, however, his music sounds more like '70s prog rock without keyboards--all busy swirling guitar parts and semiphilosophical lyrics. In fact, Built to Spill gets a huge sound for a trio--reminiscent of power groups like the Who and Rush.

For those who have a secret liking for such bands but don't quite want to sit down and listen to 2112 or Odds & Sods for the millionth time, Ancient Melodies of the Future is an appealing album, tuneful, complex and even, on occasion, anthemic.

A few highlights, like "The Weather," a beautiful and straightforward mid-tempo song, and "Alarmed" prove that Built to Spill deserves its highbrow reputation as a favorite of NPR DJs and record-store clerks the world over.

It is a band for people who distrust or dislike all electronic dance music, angst-ridden singer/songwriters, world beats, rap and folk songs: a band for people whose main interest in rock is the thin blond sound of electric guitar notes bending and arching up and around vocals. Built to Spill builds on that foundation with pretty good tunes and lyrics that aren't at all stupid.

THAT SAID, for me, Built to Spill suffers a bit from being a bit too low-key. This kind of guitar rock is generally bombastic. On the one hand, Built to Spill avoids torrid clichés, impassioned theatrics and other rock idiocy; on the other, it comes off as kind of cold.

Moreover, Martsch is not very charismatic; he's more of a throwback to the days when guys like Lou Barlow and J. Mascis made sexlessness and reticence into a high art. And his lyrics aren't really about anything in particular, being impersonal in the extreme.

On the song "Happiness," for instance, Martsch sings, "Happiness will only happen when it can," bending the melody around guitar notes that have been treated as if they belong in a song by Canned Heat, Hot Tuna or (more recently) Gomez.

"Why don't you fly around my pretty little miss," he sings on another song, which is catchy is hell but emotionally opaque. "Don't Try" is a big number with huge chords, a grunge feel and a soft chorus. "You Are" is a spare, all-but-instrumental ballad with pretty, arcing guitar parts. "Everybody knows that you are ... " he sings, without ever completing the sentence. It's a very real moment, since guys of his ilk are notoriously inarticulate.

Built to Spill seems like a band with an absolutely gigantic record collection. But despite the classic-rock antecedents--and the fact that the group records for Warner Bros.--Built to Spill may well be the last successful indie-rock band ever, a thankless title if ever there was one.

The members look like unkempt every-dudes, and their music is much too spacey and vaguely worded to be added to the radio ranks of punk rock/kiddie pop, which is fixated on songs with lyrics about adolescent problems and sex, sex, sex.

But Built to Spill recently sold out three nights at Slim's to crowds of men in their late '30s and '40s, thus proving that there is still a market for this ever-dwindling--socially and commercially--irrelevant genre. Built to Spill is a throwback, all right, but a nice throwback, one whose ancient melodies are well worth listening to.

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From the July 5-11, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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