Indie rock stalwarts going back to the early '90s, Built to Spill have pleased fans for years, and their first album in three years, There Is No Enemy, occupies much the same territory as 2006's You in Reverse. Doug Martsch's absorbed and witty wordplay consistently turns lyrical convention on its head, the songs feature a parade of quirky hooks, and with its driving, accomplished backing, the band draws in a range of potential audiences, from its indie fan base to those who rock out to jam bands or don the headphones to dig into singer/songwriters. The always literate Martsch makes a virtue of steadfastness and reflection, the single "Hindsight" bemoaning those who wonder, "Is the grass just greener 'cause it's fake?" Meanwhile, the band attacks most of these songs, giving Martsch's reflective songwriting a little more bite, even on "Good Ol' Boredom" (which would descend into tedium if it were a ballad).
Built to Spill diehards, you’ve already got this album so read no further. But for those of us who dug Perfect from Now On and Keep It Like a Secret and then completely forgot about Built to Spill, this belated UK release of There Is No Enemy comes as a perfect reminder of this crudely underrated band. Bringing people up to speed, Built to Spill have been something of a downer in recent years.
Here’s to the mid-career course correction... After setting the bar high for self-reflection with three of the most influential albums of the ‘90s, Built to Spill buckled under the weight of expectations. On ‘Hindsight,’ Doug Martsch sounds like he’s ready to move on: “Hindsight has given me too many memories.” Even at its most meandering points (‘Nowhere Lullaby’), the tangents on ‘There Is No Enemy’ feel purposeful.
In the 1990s, they produced some of the most ambitious and resonant indie rock ever made, but in the 2000s, Built to Spill seemed content with merely existing. Following the high-water marks of Perfect From Now On and Keep It Like a Secret, they went into a sort of low-grade creative hibernation, issuing records every three or four years containing a few flashes of genuine inspiration ("Strange", "Fly Around My Pretty Little Miss", "Goin' Against Your Mind") surrounded by increasingly aimless jamming. Doug Martsch, the lead singer, guitarist, and creative force behind the band, was beginning to sound like a guy with nothing particularly important left to tell us-- we could stick around, if we wanted, to hear him play his guitar, but the lack of purpose was disconcerting.
The implications of Built to Spill's seventh studio album are obvious: There Is No Enemy is a straightforward meditation on politics, identity and consumerism in the post-post-9/11 era. And the band does yeomen's work balancing its durable brand of introspective power pop with loose, spaced-out jams. There are odes aplenty to their early-'90s sound, cached in the dreamlike crunch of opener "Aisle 13" and the punk howl of "Pat." It's a measured, thoughtful album befitting a group that has practically become a byword for consistency.
Like a plaid message from the Pacific Northwest circa 1994, Built to Spill’s There Is No Enemy greets its listeners as a nostalgic reminder of an era when "alternative" was still a burgeoning genre. As though wearing blinders, Doug Martsch and his mates have moved on steadfastly, exploring little outside of their catchy, heavy, guitar-driven sound and contemplative lyrics. The venerable Built to Spill’s lack of change is almost admirable in that they continually find ways to make the same elements sound new.
Sometimes we hold classics against the artists who make them, don’t we? How else can you explain the underwhelming response to Built to Spill’s Ancient Melodies of the Future way back in 2001. Did it measure up to Perfect From Now On or Keep It Like a Secret? No, but those are two of the best indie rock albums, you know, ever. But looking back, Ancient Melodies of the Future is a solid collection of songs.
Built To Spill’s tale seemed atypical of the story of a once-great band rapidly approaching creative bankruptcy. At first the music was brilliant: they were responsible for some of the most ambitious and inventive music of the 1990s. Then things started to dissipate: the 2000s saw records laced with brilliant gems (such as Fly Around My Pretty Miss) hidden in between aimless and uninspired jamming.
Built to Spill spent the first decade of the new millennium stretching out. It took them three years to transform from a band that could only play a handful of songs immediately following the release of their 1997 masterwork Perfect From Now On to one that was jamming tracks out to the 20-minute mark on 2000’s Live. After releasing the occasionally brilliant but scattered Ancient Melodies of the Future in 2001, they toured reliably but didn’t release another album until 2006’s sprawling You in Reverse.
Belated but welcome UK release for BtS’s late-period return to form. Stevie Chick 2010 Four minutes into the ninth song of Built to Spill’s seventh album, frontman Doug Martsch channels the spirit of a late, lamented comedic firebrand while calling for all those who practice the nefarious arts of advertising and marketing to kill themselves, cooing: “Bill Hicks was right, about what they should do”. But such bouts of protest-song polemic have been hitherto rare in the BtS songbook, and the rest of There Is No Enemy’s lyric sheet focuses on off-kilter love poesies, like the moment in opener Aisle 13 where he imagines his lover covered in ants, “Because you’re so sweet”.
Built to Spill Doug Martsch, Built to Spill’s songwriter, guitarist and singer, turned 40 this year, and his band’s seventh studio album, “There Is No Enemy” (Warner Brothers), hunkers down as he ponders surviving over the long haul. Most of the songs trudge along, methodical and steadfast ….