Perfect Twenty Years On: Ranking the Built to Spill Records

This year marks the twentieth anniversary of these indie rock stalwarts out of Boise, Idaho. To commemorate the occasion, PopMatters presents this ranking of their albums, from worst to best.

4 - 1

4. Live
(Warner Bros., 2000)

During the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, Built to Spill established themselves as one of the most exciting and unpredictable live acts in indie rock. Their sets featured extended versions of their songs, saturated with noise-laden instrumental forays and interspersed with eagerly anticipated cover songs, ranging from a note-for-note rendition of the perpetually requested “Freebird” to a punk rock interpretation of the “Linus and Lucy” theme from Peanuts. Composed of footage from two separate shows, Built to Spill’s 2000 live album captures the spontaneous energy of the band’s live performances during this era. There are flawless performances of fan favorites such as “Car”, “I Would Hurt a Fly”, and “The Plan”. And songs like “Randy Described Eternity” and “Stop the Show” take a new sense of vitality in a live setting, ignited by thick layers of raw distorted guitars and Nelson and Plouf’s vibrant rhythms. The album’s choice of cover songs represents Martsch’s considerable range of influences. There is a fun version of his own side project Halo Benders’s “Virginia Reels Around the Fountain”, and a nod to his Pacific Northwest indie rock contemporaries in Love as Laughter’s “Singing Swords Make Perfect Sores”. But the real highlight -- and the centerpiece of the record -- is a 20-minute-plus rendition of the Neil Young classic “Cortez the Killer”. Young is one of Martsch’s most easily identifiable influences, from his inspired and unhinged guitar work to his coarse and charismatic tenor, and on this song Martsch deftly channels the spirit of his forebear, and makes every moment of the epic journey feel absolutely essential.

3. There’s Nothing Wrong with Love
(Up, 1994)

There’s Nothing Wrong With Love is Built to Spill’s unabashed pop album, composed of mostly three- and four-minute songs that adhere to a standard verse-chorus-verse format. And on songs like “Big Dipper”, “Distopian Dream Girl”, and “In the Morning”, Martsch utilizes the form to its fullest potential, crafting highly infectious, sing-a-long vocal melodies set to the backdrop of his eccentric and unpredictable guitar work. The lyrics are wry and unpretentious throughout, composing everyday narratives of Albertson’s TV dinners that “make an apartment a home”, and a stepfather who “Look just like David Bowie / But he hates David Bowie”. There are also a few moments here that foreshadow the free-wheeling compositional approach that would dominate the next phase of Built to Spill’s career, such as the raw and aggressive waltz of album closer “Stab”. But the most haunting and powerful work on this record are the slower, more introspective numbers such as the gorgeously understated “Reasons” and especially “Car”, with its anxious cellos, insistent guitars, and dream-like lyrical imagery. “I want to see movies of my dreams”, sings Martsch, interspersing this unforgettable refrain with images of cars, maps, and getting stoned on “clouded, breezy desert afternoons”.

2. Keep It Like a Secret
(Warner Bros., 1999)

Keep It Like a Secret was the perfect synthesis of Built to Spill’s highly varied musical output up to that point. It retains elements of Perfect from Now On’s experimental approach to structure while mixing in just enough of the classic songcraft that dominated the band’s earlier work. But it is the irresistible and life-affirming energy that saturates each song on this album which really sets it apart from the rest of the band’s catalog, and makes it such a classic of recent indie rock history. Songs like opener “The Plan” and “Carry the Zero” burn with an intensity that infuses every element of their composition, from the driving guitars and careening rhythms to Martsch’s voice which has never sounded more alive. Every song on the record feels so essential, and perfectly placed that it is impossible to speak of highlights, but “Else” stands out for its wistful lyricism and its inspired rhythmic structure of pulsing high-hats and prominent melodic bassline. And “Time Trap” with its blithe, kinetic urgency and its towering, epic build might just be one of the greatest simulations of the psychotropic experience ever captured in sound.

1. Perfect from Now On
(Warner Bros., 1997)

There are few albums within the indie rock canon that compare to Perfect from Now On in terms of the scope and grandeur of its artistic vision. The songs on this record unfold in movements, suites, and interludes rather than rock’s standard verses and choruses. And its release in 1997 was an ambitious and audacious move for a previously obscure band that had recently (and unexpectedly) signed a multi-album major label record deal. From the opening notes of “Randy Described Eternity” that swirl and climb toward Martsch’s bizarre free-verse exploration of one man’s quest to grasp the infinite, to the churning, oceanic ode to the relative nature of the divine that is “Untrustable/Part 2 (About Someone Else)”, this is an album that defies expectations and challenges the boundaries of possibility within the form of popular song through both its darkly existential lyrical content and its wildly unconventional approach to song structure.

Take for instance, the rollicking carnival ride that is “Stop the Show”, which wanders from a hazy and hypnotic introduction of slow bending guitar notes and softly humming cellos to a feedback-drenched explosion of power chords and cymbals, and Martsch’s rousing and defiant exclamation “You don’t tell me anything”. From there, the song detours through various tempos and time signatures, all punctuated with elegant, shimmering guitars, until it lands on a lovely melodic refrain that evokes both Lennon-McCartney and Moore-Ranaldo in equal measure. Toward the songs’ end, Martsch deadpans, “After a while you know the style, and that’s enough to know it sucks” — a fitting mantra for an album that refuses to adhere to any of the stylistic expectations of its genre.

Perfect from Now On is meant to be experienced in its entirety, and there are many wonderful highlights along the way, such as the soulful and pensive “Kicked It in the Sun”, and the acoustic guitar and Moog-based wanderings of “Made Up Dreams”. But the album’s climactic centerpiece is the glistening “Velvet Waltz”, which surges with cresting waves of guitars, sad and distant cellos, and Martsch’s insistent and impassioned vocals. At the song’s close, all of these elements coalesce around a thunderous waltz-based rhythm and the guitars lift off into the ether, howling and echoing over the billowing tumult below. It’s a moment of pure musical catharsis that captures the tremendous vision of this humble and unassuming band out of Boise.

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