Built to Spill's guitar-driven sound is the indie-rock equivalent of comfort food, indulgent and satisfying in how familiar it is.
Built to Spill's guitar-driven sound is the indie-rock equivalent of comfort food, indulgent and filling in how satisfyingly familiar it is. For over two decades now, the Built to Spill formula has gratifyingly stayed more or less the same, a combination of Doug Martsch's guitar workouts and his thin, sincere voice telling dream-like stories from a point-of-view that's questioning yet never jaded. Perhaps even more than Martsch's patented solos, though, it's his earnest tone that has defined Built to Spill's musical profile: indie rock that's big, loud, and ambitious enough to be arena rock without letting go of its homespun essence.
Built to Spill's eighth proper full-length and first in almost six years, Untethered Moon doesn't take long to remind you of everything that has made Martsch's aesthetic so readily identifiable as his own, as he continues to perfect what he struck on with 1997's Perfect from Now On, the group's first major-label effort. Unlike, say, the recent album by Pacific Northwest peers Modest Mouse, Built to Spill doesn't appear to feel much need to change its approach with the times, all the more remarkable considering long-time members bassist Brett Nelson and drummer Scott Plouf left during the process that resulted in Untethered Moon. No, you won't sense any upheaval once you hear the opener "All Our Songs", which achieves what memorable Built to Spill songs do when it envelops you in a blanket of fuzz and reverb. In short, "All Our Songs" is a tribute to the timelessness of Built to Spill's songs, as Martsch himself describes their effect: "I like all those old songs / Sound like they've been here forever." And actions speak even louder than words in this case, as Martsch goes off on one of his signature guitar forays, starting with a muscular melody and embellishing it with fiddled-around effects, but without ever losing the main thread.
Actually, what makes Untethered Moon an engrossing listen comes precisely from knowing that there will be few twists and turns from Martsch -- indeed, it's only when Built to Spill veers a little more off its well-traveled path with the puzzling dub and surf moves of "C.R.E.B." does the trance break. When Martsch muses, "That's way it's gonna be / Cause that's the way it's always been," to basically contradict the title of the jangly "Never Be the Same", he might as well be spelling out Built to Spill's operating logic as he conjures up a sense of familiarity you can palpably feel on the endearing, homey track. That warm buzz you can get from being reacquainted with someone you haven't heard from in a while is what drives the lullaby-like "Horizon to Cliff" and the sci-fi waltz "On the Way", both of which convey the almost child-like sense of wonder that has always set Martsch's worldview apart from that of his more jaundiced contemporaries, even when he's dealing with doubt and the unknown as he is here and elsewhere on Untethered Moon. Better yet at getting this tender bittersweetness across is "Some Other Songs", as its melancholy, just-a-step-slow melodies have a reassuring effect that balances out the anxiety expressed in the lyrics ("I don't know how to never know how to fall apart / Still wondering how to never fall apart").
How Built to Spill succeeds in making more of the same never feel too samey has to do with the way Martsch makes inspired variations on his main themes, particularly how the group plays with time signatures from track to track, and within them too, on Untethered Moon. That's clear on "Living Zoo", which radiates with a renewed energy that is registered in the tempo changes, as Martsch goes from a slice-and-dice post-punkish intro to a jittery sped-up solo, before settling into the loping lines and dreamy tones that are squarely in his comfort zone. Speeding things up and adding more texture, "Another Day" is fiercer in the way it crunches, with Martsch tapping into darker, angsty feelings as his virtuoso guitar playing stays just a shade on the more melodic and colorful side of Dinosaur Jr.
These changes in pace speak to how Martsch's spontaneity as a performer keeps what's familiar feel vital. The way Untethered Moon is recorded really draws out the improvisational aspect of Martsch's ingenious solos, capturing the rough-hewn instinctiveness of his guitar work rather than smoothing things over in the studio. On "So", Martsch achieves the guitar sprawl he's known for, especially when he hits the roaring coda, which feels all the more intuitive as you hear the distortion crackle as his playing slips and slides, sparkles and shreds. The live feel and extemporaneous elements of the album-closing "When I'm Blind" are even more exploratory, so you can indulge the thrashy minutes-long outro because it's all part of Martsch's process for figuring things out and finding a way through to the other side.
Déjà vu all over again in the best way, Untethered Moon ends up being a set of new songs that remind you of those old Built to Spill songs you liked, ones that sound like they've been here forever. That uncanny feeling will no doubt endure until the next batch of Built to Spill tunes that you feel like you already know comes along, no matter how long that might be.