Built To Spill Tunes Up (Again and Again)
Sometimes you’re too good for your own good.
That’s not something that many fans of Doug Martsch’s hypnotic, complicated arrangements might say when they experience them on Built To Spill’s studio recordings, including the seminal Perfect From Now On, the more approachable Keep It Like a Secret, or their newest Ancient Melodies of the Future, due out July 10.
But as many bands—many of them electronic outfits that get seriously lost in the translation—have shown before, the studio is one thing, a live show is entirely another, equally delicate matter. And when it comes to a live Built To Spill show, the faithful are usually rewarded for their persistence. The rest probably snooze right through it or leave.
Red flags probably should have been raised when the guy who’s as much as a guitar freak as I—and who got me into Martsch’s brilliant band in the first place—told me that Built To Spill concerts are a great place to catch up on your sleep. I figured he was needling the group because their previous release—a live album with the redundantly unassuming title, Live—featured guitar solos the likes of which I haven’t heard in length and breadth since Led Zeppelin’s live collection, The Song Remains the Same. You’ve got to be a massive fan of both Built To Spill and the tendencies of guitarists to explore their instruments at length—until they simply quit because there’s nothing left to explore—to sit through Live in its entirety.
I know I am.
So it was armed with the knowledge that Martsch and Co. might stretch their already long songs longer that I headed to the El Rey Theatre in Los Angeles, stoked to finally witness the guitar god’s chops up close and personal.
Man, was I in for a wait. First up: opening bands.
I came too late to catch Brett Nelson—Built To Spill’s bassist—and his own band, Suffocation Keep, tear through some catchy guitar music. I caught the last three tunes, which were similar to BTS in heart but not texture, but, hey, that’s what happens when you open for such a good band. Nelson’s crew was followed shortly by the Delusions, a rousing group with what amounted to three singers and some pretty nice guitar work of their own, including some manic finger dexterity by Jim Roth, who also played lead guitar for Built To Spill later in the evening. Roth was the more energetic member of the vocalists, and had a stage presence that would be hard to follow if he weren’t being followed by, well, Doug.
The fact that these gamers performed double duty with their own bands and Built To Spill spoke volumes about both their skill and ability to concentrate. You could say it was a family affair.
So by the time Martsch ambled onstage to prep his guitar setup—no roadies needed—the audience was pumped and ready to rock, thanks to Roth and Nelson’s individual efforts. And, to his credit, he eschewed any major introduction appearing so early onstage, until a gushing DJ from KCRW hopped on the mike to introduce the band. As guitar and/or alternative rock gods go, Martsch cuts a peculiar figure. He’s tall, lanky, bearded and lacks both the pretension and stage presence most acts carry around like cultural capital. For Martsch, it seems, the music comes first, the act comes second.
Which was kinda the problem.
Martsch’s compositions are so laced with complexities that he spent as much of what amounted to stage time—that is presence time, the period in which someone in an elevated space has to perform or otherwise distance his audience—as he did in performance time preparing for his songs. It may sound like hyperbole, but he easily spent an average of three to four minutes after every song tuning his guitar or tweaking some knob, disrupting any momentum the band had amassed, buttressed by an adoring crowd and plenty of cheers.
Which is partially easy to get away with if you’re cranking out faves, calming the fanatics in the audience who dumbly howl out the names of their favorite songs as if they figured Built To Spill jumped onstage without a set list and was taking requests. But if the band is touring in support of a disc that hasn’t been released yet, all that tinkering and tuning just makes it feel like an eternity before they recreate the songs that made you follow them in the first place.
Which is more or less how it worked. Built To Spill wasted no time in introducing new material and, early on in the set, the audience was receptive. Especially when they followed up a new track with an old one, as Martsch did when he launched into the pounding intro for “Time Trap”. That got everyone’s heart pumping—mine especially, since I figured that extended guitar solos could more than compensate for the tinkering time between songs—but someone must have tipped Martsch off, because there were no guitar odysseys in sight. In contrast, Built To Spill stuck strictly to the studio time when it came to playing favorites and in some cases—the gorgeous “Else” from Keep It Like a Secret—even shortened them somewhat. Or watered them down, as in the case of “Made Up Dreams” from Perfect From Now On. I was savoring the chance to see the intensity of that tune explode onstage as it does on the studio track, but Martsch played the low pro, and ended the song surreptitiously before it could reach the howling wah pedal frenzy that I had come to associate with the band altogether.
But don’t get me wrong: Martsch and Co. played a solid selection of familiar tunes from most of their albums, including “Car”, “Velvet Waltz”, “Untrustable”, “Some”, “Twin Falls” and a spirited version of the crowd favorite, “Carry the Zero”—which some knucklehead misnamed “Less Than Zero” when it was his turn to scream out his request—and more. He even chucked out a straight-faced cover of George Harrison’s post-Beatles popcraft, “What Is Life”, although not too many people in the boring El Rey Theatre—does anyone in L.A. just rock out at concerts anymore?—seemed to notice. And especially don’t get me wrong about Martsch or Built To Spill: I think the guy is a musical genius, and I have nothing but the utmost respect for him.
But so were hip-hop pioneers De La Soul when they puzzled together their postmodern masterpiece, 3 Feet High and Rising; yet their relentlessly sharp and inventive craftsmanship had the same problem wandering out of the studio and into the buzzing hive of expectation that is live performance. And everything around Martsch buzzes, trust me. Even the free bonus CD—cleverly titled Sabonis Tracks, after the Portland Trail Blazers’ hulking yet slow-footed Lithuanian center, Arvydas Sabonis—you received if you preordered Ancient Melodies of the Future employed disturbing label hype, i.e. “bursting with freshness and excitement seldom found in popular rock music.” Add that to the fanatical newsletter found on the band’s Web site, and you have the kind of fawning adoration that must make the bearded guy who quietly said “thanks a lot” after every song kinda nervous.
And he should be, I guess, because he is a hard act to follow, to paraphrase the first line of this review. Especially when he is following himself. And even though he might not succeed onstage as wildly as he does in the studio, I still have to recommend that fans of the band should nevertheless catch Built To Spill live, if only to give them a broader idea of what exactly it is that goes into crafting and performing such complex, brilliant guitar work.
Even if it hurts to watch sometimes.