BUILT TO SPILL Perfect From Now On (City Slang)
"Perfect From Now On" is the latest epistle from Boise, Idaho (home of the potato, apparently) trio Built To Spill, fronted by ex-Tree Person/Halo Bender Doug Martsch. They seem to specialise in a relaxed blend of guitar symphonics, string harmonics and analogue electronics, with long, lazy tunes that suggest some kind of grunge lounge lizardry - how about Mercury Rev crossed with the Red House Painters with a mid-70s Neil Young on vocals? Different, definitely, but no matter how many times I play it "Perfect From Now On" doesnt seem to break down the barriers of listener resistance and get genuinely liked: maybe its the unfocused lyrics or the not-as-clever-as-they-think-they-are melodies, but so far it has yet to really connect. Perseverance may prove the title correct, however.
BUILT TO SPILL Keep It Like A Secret (City Slang)
"Keep It Like A Secret", the fourth album from former Tree Person Doug Martsch's ever-changing (although now allegedly stable) power trio, makes all the right moves. There's great, thick wads of guitars, straight out of any classic mid-70s AOR platter you'd care to name. Just about every track has the kind of spidery melodic inventiveness you'd rightly expect from latter-day contenders such as Superchunk or maybe Guided By Voices in one of their rare calmer moments. At times Martsch's guitar soloing evokes comparisons with Neil Young, not the kind of compliment you bestow lightly. So why do I find "Keep It Like A Secret", like its predecessor "Perfect From Now On", so uninvolving? Maybe there's no real heart or emotional centre to these ten tracks, which may well sound interesting on the surface but have nothing beneath to reel the listener in. Whatever, "Keep It Like A Secret" sounds more like an honourable failure than the masterpiece described in the press release. Which is a genuine shame.BUILT TO SPILL Live (City Slang)
Doug Martsch, former Treeperson and compositional and motivational force behind the loose affiliation that has and continues to be Boise, Idaho's Built To Spill, loves playing live but hates touring, so to any adoring fanboy this 70 minute document of his band's brief blitz across the US in support of 1999's "Keep It Like A Secret" album would be an essential purchase. But what about people, such as myself, who find Built To Spill's studio meanderings pleasant but ultimately more clever-clever than clever?
Um well, it might be an essential purchase for them too, because "Live" is absolutely terrific. Conjuring up thick wads of rippling guitar noise that sound like Television might have if Tom Verlaine had benefited from a mid-70s Boston and Aerosmith-saturated American childhood ("If you grew up in the seventies you liked Aerosmith", as R.E.M.'s Peter Buck once said), Built To Spill then wrap them around melodies so absurdly chunky you could use them as Lego. Just about every one of the Built To Spill originals here is wonderful: "The Plan" and "Randy Described Eternity" are usefully trimmed compared to their studio equivalents and manage to pack far more of a visceral punch because of it, "Broken Chairs" lazily stretches out to cover 19 minutes of ever-enthralling six-string excursion, whilst the previously unheard "Virginia Reel Around The Fountain" is sublime.
That's the cake, but prepare yourself for the cherry. The album's centrepiece is nothing other than an astonishing 20 minute interpretation of Neil Young's "Cortez The Killer", a song even its creator tends to get bored with in less than half the time. Of course, it helps to suspend disbelief that Doug Martsch's vocals have that familiar trademark little-boy-lost whine (just like Jonathan Donohue of Mercury Rev, another band who've been known to play "Cortez The Killer" in concert, although their version sadly remains unreleased), but nevertheless Built To Spill's take on this original classic of cosmic American (Canadian?) music remains an undisputed triumph. There's a moment about three minutes before the end when even the feedback could make you weep, such is the emotion these men manage to wring from their strings and sticks. What could have crash-landed as a terrible idea takes flight into the realms of sheer, unadulterated brilliance.
"Live" has my vote as the first great concert recording of the millennium, and anybody whose tastes veer towards alternative American guitar noise should grab a lugful to confirm my findings. And if Wyndham from City Slang is reading this, how about issuing "Live" as one of your gorgeous 180 gram audiophile vinyl pressings? I'd buy one!