The Pacific Northwest has been home to more than its fair share of iconic musicians — Jimi Hendrix, Quincy Jones, Kurt Cobain, and Elliott Smith all spent their formative years in this rain-soaked corner of the world. But for my generation, those who came of age in the years shortly after grunge’s demise, there is no band that better exemplifies the Northwest sound than Boise, Idaho’s Built to Spill.
The band has seen many incarnations, from its beginnings as a loosely conceived solo-project for founder/songwriter Doug Martsch, to its current line-up of drummer Scott Plouf, bassist Brett Nelson, and guitarists Jim Roth and Brett Netson, which has earned a reputation as one of the most dynamic and inventive live rock bands in recent memory. As a guitarist, Martsch belongs to the same school of outre virtuosity as Dinosaur Jr.’s J.Mascis and Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo, although he balances his more experimental tendencies with a heavy dose of classic rock sensibility. But it is his unique approach to melody and songcraft that have exerted such a considerable influence over the music of the Pacific Northwest. And while a few of Martsch’s most ardent admirers, such as Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard and Modest Mouse’s Isaac Brock, have gone on to achieve greater levels of commercial success, Built to Spill maintains a core of deeply devoted fans to this day.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of Built to Spill, and to commemorate the occasion, I’ve put together the following tribute to their catalog, ranking their full-length releases from worst to best. I’ve included both live and compilation albums here to provide a sense of their evolution as a band and the range of their material.
(K Records, 1996)
The Normal Years is a compilation of previously unreleased tracks recorded between 1993 and 1995, and it provides a sense of the constant state of flux and reinvention that characterized the early years of Built to Spill. The cast of players throughout this period included guitarist Brett Netson and bassist Brett Nelson, contributions from members of Martsch’s previous band Treepeople, and a seemingly endless procession of drummers. As a whole, it’s a scattered and disjointed affair that reveals the evolution of the band throughout this period, growing pains and all. “Joyride” is a burst of jangled punk-pop that remains a fixture of the band’s live repertoire, and a cover of Daniel Johnston’s “Some Things Last a Long Time” is touching in its raw simplicity. And album closer “Terrible/Perfect” exhibits Martsch’s deeply creative approach to the guitar, building from a beginning of clean electric finger-picking to a climax of noise-drenched textures and huge, resonant chords.
The influence of Martsch’s previous band, Treepeople, is all over Built to Spill’s 1993 debut, from the proto-grunge guitar soloing to the angst-ridden rasp of the vocals. But on tracks like the unapologetically poppy “Lie for a Lie”, and the aptly-titled slacker-soul of “Hazy”, Martsch displayed a determination to take his new project in some very different directions as well. The album begins, naturally, with “The First Song”, an amalgamation of guitar feedback, jolting tempo changes, and Martsch’s vaguely existential lyrical ruminations. And on the standout track “Nowhere Nothin’ Fuckup”, Martsch draws heavily upon the Velvet Underground’s classic ode to drifters and druggies, “Oh Sweet Nothin”, marking the beginning of his career-long commitment to foregrounding and celebrating his own influences as a musician and a songwriter.
(Warner Bros., 2001)
After the back to back releases of Perfect from Now On and Keep It Like a Secret, 2001’s Ancient Melodies of the Future, was met with a reception from fans and critics that was often lukewarm at best. In many ways, the album is a return to the more traditional songwriting of There’s Nothing Wrong with Love, but it lacks the gleefully haphazard nature of that record, trading the roughly-hewn appeal of the band’s early work for an overly refined production aesthetic that detracts from the simple beauty of these songs. Martsch would later admit that it wasn’t that great of a record, and after its release he went on an indefinite hiatus from the band to spend more time at home with his family. But looking back from the present stage of the band’s career, Ancient Melodies of the Future feels like a necessary step from the sprawling and experimental work of their mid-career albums, as the band returned to the more traditional, song-focused efforts of recent years. The strongest offering here is the opener, “Strange”, which foregrounds Sam Coomes’ distinctive keyboard style as the backdrop to one of Martsch’s most instantly infectious vocal melodies. And “Fly Around My Pretty Little Miss” stands out to this day as one of the catchiest, straight-up pop numbers in the band’s catalog.
(Warner Bros., 2006)
After Ancient Melodies of the Future’s largely lackluster reception, Martsch went into a creative hibernation, releasing one solo album of blues-based acoustic work, and taking a step back from the constant grind of touring, writing, and recording to spend more time at home. When You in Reverse finally arrived in 2006, it was greeted by fans and critics as a welcome and unexpected return to form. Much of this album was written through live improvisation, with each member of the now permanent line-up contributing to the songwriting process. And there is a loose and informal feel to these songs that comes closer than any other recorded material to replicating the energy of the band’s live performances. Opener “Goin’ Against You Mind” bursts forth with tightly mechanized rhythms and urgent, spiraling guitars. Martsch’s lyrics are weird and wonderful as ever, singing “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”, in his scratchy and lilting tenor. And on songs like “Liar”, “Just a Habit”, and “Saturday”, a more subtle compositional approach allows for Martsch’s mesmerizing vocal melodies to really shine through.
(Warner Bros., 2009)
In many ways, You in Reverse played like the proper follow-up to Keep It Like a Secret that Ancient Melodies of the Future failed to deliver. There Is No Enemy was an even more consistent effort that harkened back to the rich symphonic guitar textures and minor key moods of Perfect from Now On. But whereas that album was characterized by its expansive and unpredictable approach to structure, the songs here are more focused and restrained, foregrounding Martsch’s poignant vocal melodies and introspective lyrics. Themes of aging, memory, and mortality dominate the album, but Martsch tempers this heavy subject matter with characteristic irony and wit, as on the alt-country-tinged track “Hindsight”, where he wonders if “the grass is always greener because it’s fake”. Musically, the album is rich with multi-layered guitars and gently plodding rhythms. Each song flows seamlessly into the next, and although the mood is generally somber throughout, there are a few surprise elements thrown into the mix as well. “Nowhere Lullaby” is as gorgeous and moving as anything the band has ever recorded, “Life’s a Dream” pays tribute to the oldies with its winking, doo-wop backing vocals, triumphant horns color the climatic “Things Fall Apart”, and “Pat” explodes as aggressively as anything since Ultimate Alternative Wavers.