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Built to Spill

Ancient Melodies of the Future

(Warner Bros.; US: 10 Jul 2001)

Ancient Melodies of the Future is a fitting title for Built to Spill’s latest album, as their music has always had a mystical quality about it. Singer/songwriter/guitarist Doug Martsch has a lyrical obsession with time, space, and where we fit into each, and explores it through guitar rock that delves into the sort of mind-blowing, eternal jams that Crazy Horse plays. Martsch’s sensitive, pretty-for-a-rock-singer vocals present him as the sort of person who is denigrated as a slacker when all his far-off looks really indicate is profound dreaming and complex contemplation of the universe.

“Something is wrong, something invisible is gone,” Martsch sings on “The Host”, the album’s second track, immediately evoking the common Built to Spill feeling of the otherworldliness of everday life. Things have changed, the world feels odd, yet nothing obvious has gone wrong. Everything feels strange, yet that’s how things always feel. Or as he sings on “Strange”, the album’s lead-off track, “Yeah it’s strange, but what isn’t strange.”

The inner workings of life are what’s behind nearly every Built to Spill song in same way or another. “I haven’t had half a hand in half of what I am,” Martsch sings at one moment; “Everyone goes on and on,” he repeasts in another. The role of memories and the question of pre-determination come up on the rambling, vaguely Eastern-sounding “In Your Mind”, while the closing ballad “The Weather” manages to both be a simple, direct love letter and conjure up constellations and weather patterns.

The 10 tracks on Ancient Melodies deal with deep thoughts and feelings, yet Martsch is no wannabe philosopher. He has said that his lyrics are nonsense, that he cares more about how the words sound together than their meaning, and I believe him. Yet it’s clear that, without trying, he dives deeper into the workings of the world than most songwriters who think they’re saying something really important. He casually brings up the important questions of life, when all he meant to do was tell you how he felt or how his day went.

On the whole, Built to Spill’s latest album is mellower, dreamier, and more laidback than their previous recordings. There’s next to no straightforward, catchy rock anthems (no “Big Dipper” or “Center of the Universe”). There’s also more subtle sonic embellishments than ever before, like strings and keyboards, and the band dips into musical styles not found on their previous works (like on the bluesy acoustic intro to “Happiness” and the almost shoegazer-like guitar swirl of “You Are”). Yet the album is as much of a rock-guitar masterpiece as anything they’ve done. Martsch might not be a technical guitar whiz, but he plays with feeling and exuberance; the album is smothered with guitar riffs, chords and grooves, and they sound beautiful.

Throughout Ancient Melodies of the Future, Built to Spill is soaring headlong into a rock whirlwind while carefully and intelligently considering the world around us. Their music has the punch and exuberant fun of the most vacuous classic rock radio anthems, but it’s smart, touching and involving. Pump your fist or lay back and daydream, or better yet do both . . . On Ancient Melodies of the Future Built to Spill sound both ancient and brand new, as eternal as the themes they sing about and as fresh as the latest movers-and-shakers in the rock world.

Dave Heaton has been writing about music on a regular basis since 1993, first for unofficial college-town newspapers and DIY fanzines and now mostly on the Internet. In 2000, the same year he started writing for PopMatters, he founded the online arts magazine, still around but often in flux. He writes music reviews for the print magazine The Big Takeover. He is a music obsessive through and through. He lives in Kansas City, Missouri.

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