Built to Spill Albums

            Built to Spill are often labeled as just another “indie rock” band, but they are at least the kings of that specific genre. At most, they were among the top five bands of the 1990’s, and deserved to be known as one of the all time greats. They made two albums that both have consideration for greatest record ever made: Perfect from Now On which is my personal favorite, and Keep it Like a Secret another flawless record that mix guitar rock excellence with catchy melodies. Beyond that they have other great works as well, and what is amazing is their evolution from sort of grungy stoner rock messes to perfecting a language that improves on what a rock song can be. A genuine look at each album it is another page in re-writing rock history. Led by the singer/songwriter Doug Martsch (whose first band Treepeople released the intriguing album Guilt Regret Embarassment in 1991) who is not only one of the most original guitarists in rock music, but also one of the best lyricists. His songs do not tell stories in a linear fashion- they make universal statements and teach life lessons as they go. One of the most interesting bands around, Built to Spill will no doubt go down in history as legendary.

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Band Members:             

Doug Martsch (guitar, vocals), Brett Netson (bass, guitar, 1992-2015), Ralf Youtz (drums, 1992-93), Brett Nelson (bass, 1993-95, 1996-2012), Andy Capps (drums, 1993-95), Scott Plouf (drums, 1996-2012), Jim Roth (guitar, 1999, 2006-15), Jason Albertini (bass, 2012-present), Steve Gere (drums, 2012-present)

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Best Albums:

Perfect from Now On and Keep it Like a Secret

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Biggest Influences:

Neil Young, Dinosaur Jr., Television, The Byrds, Paul McCartney, Flaming Lips, The Grateful Dead

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Albums Chronologically:

1993 – (3.5 / 5) – Ultimate Alternative Wavers

1994 – (4.5 / 5) – There’s Nothing Wrong with Love

1997 – (5 / 5)+ – Perfect from Now On

1999 – (5 / 5)+ – Keep it Like a Secret

2001 – (5 / 5) – Ancient Melodies of the Future

2006 – (4 / 5)  – You in Reverse

2009 – (4 / 5)  – There is No Enemy

2015 – (3.5 / 5) – Unearthed Moon

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1993

Ultimate Alternative Wavers –  (3.5 / 5)

            Ultimate News Wavers is the first jump out of the muck into something formative. It’s kind of a mess, but that is part of this band’s charm at this point in their career. There are definitely some outstanding songs, “Three Years Ago Today” is the most forward looking, while “Hazy and “Get a Life” are also great examples of a talented and evolving band. The thing is, most of this material is merely ‘good not great’ and that can wane on a listener after a while. Though “Nowhere Nothin’ Fuckup” is as clever as expected and “Shameful Dread” has some intriguing parts but why does it change patterns seven minutes in like that?? They aren’t exactly mind blowing or future oriented. As far as openers, closers, and crafting an album, the band is not quite great at it yet- an example being “Built to long Parts One Two and Three” where the samples just do not work. The record shows off a lot of cool influences (Neil Young and Velvet Underground style guitar mess most of all), but Ultimate News Wavers is more of a ‘baby steps to greatness’ record. Still, there is a certain joy to it that expresses free experimentation and interesting guitar lines to say the least and its done well enough to recommend to the already converted fan.

Greatest Songs: Three Years Ago Today, Get a Life, Nowhere Nothin’ Fuckup

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1994

There’s Nothing Wrong with Love –    (4.5 / 5)

            On their second record, the band hasn’t really “improved” as much as changed their approach to songwriting. Whether this album is better than UNW depends on what kind of Built to Spill fan you are; the band here is more pop melodic than guitar jam or lengthy, for example there is only one song over five minutes “Some” and its not one of the best ones. To me this is a great record, one that uses nostalgia and good timing with a very positive vibe and is consistent enough to warrant its classic stamp as the first great record the band made. Songs like the short and nostalgic “Twin Falls” (Martsch’s home town) and “Dystopian Dream Girl” (one of the coolest shifts from verse to chorus ever made in rock music) show this quality off.

            This also stands as some of the most influential “indie” rock records ever made. Whether its a Crosby Stills Nash and Young sing along like “Car” or “Fling”, or a great little melodic ditty like “Reasons” or “Stab”, the record has earned its devoted followers; the former song is one of the greatest melodies ever penned n my opinion. The only time the record falters is the mess “Cleo”, “Some” and “The Source”, that not only are mediocre songs but don’t fit the tone of the record at all. But two thirds of the record being so lighthearted and fun, it is hard to complain, and very easy to enjoy as a great album. Don’t forget to keep listening as the preview to the upcoming Built to Spill album contains all the bands styles and has the killer chorus “Kick em in the head we’re gonna kick em in the head!!!” which is a very hilarious and self-aware take on their own style and sound.

Greatest Songs: Reasons, Dystopian Dream Girl, Big Dipper, Fling

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1997

Perfect from Now On –    (5 / 5)+

            Going from their last album to this masterpiece, Built to Spill may have created the most ambitious album ever made. The songs on this album are not even in the same universe as There is Nothing Wrong with Love; not that there was anything wrong with that sound, but this shows a group that has found a way to make a perfect fusion of all the rock music that has come before it. Every song on Perfect from now On is over five minutes except one, but that shouldn’t turn any listeners off, because every song one here seems like more than one song blended together with melodies abound. From the opener “Randy Describes Eternity” (long poetic journey into outer space) through the shifting “Untrustable pt. 2” (epic album closer that has another perfect chorus), the songs have these melodies that just flow together so beautifully that the listener doesn’t even notice that the same song is still going on! The trick seems to be i, even if the styles of the different segments of songs differ, they just merge together so well.

            “Out of Site” and “Stop the Show” are the best examples of this kind of writing. “Out of Site” starts off like a typical Neil Young guitar jam through the voice of a cello instead of guitar solo (courtesy of John McMahon) but the song picks up pace and changes tempos culminating in a combination Sonic Youth guitar strumming with  the clarity of Paul McCartnety at his Beatles best in the charming chorus stating “Iknow that you get yours when you get empty”, before the tempo slows down once again. “Stop the Show” begins as a languid piece of classical music before erupting to the indie rock chug to end them all at the three-minute mark and becoming one of the most interesting rock crescendos by the end of the song, even having a sort of dance club fade out channeling the sound of the mid 1990’s in a clever way (a la Smashing Pumpkins own “1979”). Speaking of impressive crescendos, the end of “I Would Hurt a Fly”, a great slow burner in its own right, the instruments jam out at the end in what sounds like it could possibly go on forever with a very catchy guitar line.

            This album could be someone’s whole life, there is so much meaning and so much beauty. Perfect from Now On pressures rock music to be something more, something different. The lyrical content on the album is also endlessly entertaining. For example, “Velvet Waltz” may be the harderst song to like at first, but once you notice that you cant get it out of your head (by about the tenth listen), it will not matter how many times Doug Martsch says ‘sun’. “In a world that’s not so bad, in a world time is killing in the suuuuuun.” It transforms a harmless phrase into one with infinite meaning. Another lyric samples states, “After a while you know the style and that’s enough to know you suck.” Not delivered like pretentious know-it-alls or anything, (shout out to drummer Scott Plouf and Bassist Brett Nelson) the combination of performers here this music deserves to be held above all others as examples of where rock music should go, and it will stand the test of time well. Even songs that might be deemed harder to get into (“Made Up Dreams”, “Kicked in the Sun”) are made great by either lyrics or songs shifting; no less than great tracks exist here as all eight tracks are perfect from every standpoint. One of the two Built to Spill albums that defy all musical conventions, one of the best albums ever if not my personal favorite.

Greatest Songs: I Would Hurt a Fly, Out of Site, Velvet Waltz, Stop the Show

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1999

Keep it Like a Secret –   (5 / 5)+

            Keep it Like a Secret is never too much in-your-face-rock, and never boring either. Coming off of the heels of the masterpiece and career highlight that was 1997’s Perfect from Now On, this is a great album full of diverse, complicated songs and atmospheres; perhaps even more accessible than the last record was. The album has a mellow feel to it, and it becomes more likable with every listen. The opener “The Plan” is an immediate favorite with cascading guitar solos and stand as a sort of national anthem of the group; the following second track “Center of the Universe” is a simple catchy song and shows how the group could have hit songs in a alternate universe; the same is true for the magical “Sidewalk”, the Watergate era tale of the mysterious “Bad Light”. This is some of the most joyous music made in the 90’s. “Else” is a personal favorite, one of the most lovely songs ever written that has the immortal lyric “your body breaks your needs consume you forever/ and with this lies the need to be here together.” Classic.

            Built to Spill does not give up the art of complicated rock song completely though, with many tunes still keeping the song-within-song of the previous record. “Temporarily Blind” is catchy but changes form about four times throughout, inventing a whole new genre. “Carry the Zero” perfects the art of guitar epic that started with The Grateful Dead and went on through Pink Floyd and magically transforms again here. “Time Trap” starts off with a massive instrumental jam before stopping in almost silence only to churns out another catchy chorus. The closing song “Broken Chairs” instead goes on and on forever, challenging the listener but fulfilling his/her hopes. Perhaps one of the weaker tunes is “You Were Right” which is a tribute to all Martsch’s favorite classic rock bands who have gone before, from the Rolling Stones to John Melloncamp to Pink Floyd to Kansas. All around, this album tied with Perfect from Now On as the most consistent in Built to Spill’s catalog, it takes what was done before and makes it into even more accessible. If Perfect from Now on is rock album as an abstract painting, Keep It Like a Secret is rock album as pop entertainment and melody. There’s nothing wrong with love.  

Greatest Songs: Else, Carry the Zero, Bad Light, Time Trap, Temporarily Blind

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2001

Ancient Melodies of the Future –    (5 / 5)

            While this album at first might sound like Keep it Like a Secret leftovers, it is really more in the style of There’s Nothing Wrong with Love. With the two albums prior to this one, Built to Spill set a standard they could not hope to reach again, I mean we are talking about two of the most perfect rock albums ever created here! It leaves Ancient Melodies of the Future to be left in their wake though, and that is a pity; the inevitable “follow up to the masterpiece” is bound to be looked at a lesser album . But what a consistent record this is! Yes, on some level the record does not have a unique sound of its own, but some songs are so good it really is impressive the band has retained its sense of wonder.

            “Happiness” really should have bit a rock n roll hit single, it is just perfectly constructed. Opener “Strange” is rocking and accessible and make it all sound very easy to do; “Alarmed” and “You Are” are the structure-shifters of the album that Martsch writes so well with their epic guitar finishes; “In Your Mind” and “Don’t Try” are the demented rockers. The album has one large problem: “The Host” should not be track #2 – it halts the album in its tracks from the get-go and it’s a very mediocre song. Also, the songs have a simple quality that has to fit on your mood really, and that “mood” whatever it may be (I call it complicated-prettiness. Good name huh?) is not for everybody. Chances are though, if you love this band, you’ll love this record; just more in a “relaxed” way than a challenging way- take for example the country rock shuffle of “Fly Around MY Pretty Little Miss”, a great song but has a feel about it like it was easy to create. It’s similar to albums that are fan favorites by other bands, such as Morphine’s Like Swimming, Rolling Stones’ Some Girls, Pixies’ Trompe Le Monde, The Beatles’ Let it Be, and Sonic Youth’s Goo. It’s just the band being itself, and that happens to still be some of the most awesome music around.

Greatest Songs: Alarmed, Happiness, Fly Around My Pretty Little Miss, In Your Mind

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  • still more to come soon! 😛