Release Date: Apr 21, 2015
Record label: Warner Bros.
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock
Like their peers Modest Mouse, Built to Spill strike me as one of those bands who’ve nailed their own sound to such a fundamental extent that actually releasing new music is no longer a particularly necessary part of what they do. It’s been six years since previous studio album There is No Enemy: a few decades ago that would have been enough for the Idaho rockers to merit an appearance in a ‘where are they now’ section of a pop periodical. But this is the twenty-first century, when there’s not much incentive to release new material beyond the demands of your own muse, and mainman Doug Martsch’s muse has clearly been telling him to get on with the usual business of playing fucktonnes of live shows and shuffling the band line up again.
Untethered Moon is another example of why Built To Spill remains one of the most unheralded, under-the-radar and underrated indie-rock acts ever to grace the scene. With Dough Martsch at the helm, doing what he does best and most passionately, BTS lay down another exclamation mark that's right up there with the band's previous albums. Martsch's solo work over the last couple years found him tortured and pained but BTS always represented that outlet of optimism and this here's no different.
After 20 years, Built to Spill are still inexplicably on Warner Bros., releasing their sixth album for the label. Their first full-length in six years, Untethered Moon, doesn't offer any surprising twists or digressions from the band's previous seven releases. As per usual, the line-up was switched around once again, with mainstay Doug Martsch bringing in a new rhythm section — band roadies Jason Albertini on bass and Steve Gere on drums — to join him, Jim Roth and Brett Netson on guitar.Recorded after a previous collection of recordings were scrapped, thanks to the departure of Brett Nelson and Scott Plouf, Martsch brought in regular collaborator Sam Coomes (Quasi) as a co-producer to help stir creative juices.
At first blush, there’s something surprisingly direct about the latest Built to Spill album. It includes a song called “C.R.E.B.”, an acronym that stands for “cAMP response element-binding protein” — a cellular transcription factor, a microscopic building block of human life that’s essential to the formation of memory and neuroplasticity. While frontman Doug Martsch has always been concerned with the essential elements of human existence, it’s strange to see him dig straight into the physical brain rather than the worlds it builds, explores, and remembers.
Since Built to Spill’s There Is No Enemy was released in 2009, unabashed guitar rock has gone out of style. But here comes Untethered Moon, blissfully ignorant of trends or label expectations, ever still the ‘90s indie rock sound the band has never given up on. Like Dinosaur Jr. or Sleater-Kinney, Built to Spill has stuck to a blueprint throughout their career, not confined by their sound, but willfully imprisoned.
Untethered Moon is the first Built to Spill record Doug Martsch has released in six years, and its existence alone is a mild surprise. His last LP, 2009’s There Is No Enemy, was quietly better and more focused than its two predecessors, but it didn’t get much attention from press or long-term fans. Martsch didn’t tour behind Enemy for three years, and when he spoke to Pitchfork in 2013 he admitted to feeling directionless.
It’s been six years since the last Built To Spill album, There Is No Enemy, a record that many believed might well be the band’s last. Even lynchpin Doug Martsch thought that the game might be up as he mulled over his age and ability to even carry on. Yet despite the doubts, Untethered Moon made it to completion. Martsch’s need to make music clearly, and fortunately outstripped his concerns regarding his mental and physical capacity to continue.
With a trajectory of over twenty years dedicated to guitar-driven rock, it’s no surprise that Doug Martsch isn’t really concerned about the time and effort it takes to write new Built to Spill albums. In a recent interview with All Music, he candidly jokes that he doesn’t have a clear idea of what he’s doing most of the time. Which is probably the best way to approach it, considering most well-established acts struggle to reclaim, or emulate, their best work with a hungry sort of desperation.
Even in those bygone days when guitar wranglers prowled all-ages clubs, Doug Martsch’s method seemed messianic: six strings exploring the sublime. Nominally indie after nearly a quarter century enjoying the good graces of Warner Bros., Built to Spill have never escaped those Dinosaur Jr. comparisons even if it’s now clear that Martsch’s melodic reserves plunge deeper than those of J Mascis (obvious influence Neil Young aside, Television sometimes feels like a more logical correlation for these Idahoans, all those spiky riffs and solos corkscrewing around a buoyant rhythm section).
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 probably should have named themselves Built to Last. Their 2015 album, Untethered Moon, is only their eighth, but they've been cranking out guitar-saturated indie rock for over two decades. Not only is their longevity (both as a band and as a Warner Bros. recording artist) remarkable, so is their consistency.
With seven albums already under their belt, Built to Spill know their strengths and have no desire to fuck up a formula that works..
Built to Spill are the AC/DC of indie rock: Their catalog is full of one melancholy LP, jam-packed with guitar pyrotechnics, after another. But frontman and six-string virtuoso Doug Martsch knows how to vary the formula just enough to keep things interesting. On their eighth LP, and first since 2009, Martsch explores 50 shades of disappointment on "Never Be the Same" and "Another Day," wraps his anxieties up in post-Hendrix guitar swirl on "When I'm Blind" and builds a stomping, Crazy Horse-style jam about forgetting someone close to him on "C.R.E.B." The album's consistency is a testament to Martsch's perfectionism (he scrapped a whole album in 2012) — and for that, we salute him.
After a handful of promising indie releases, Built To Spill signed to a major label and released its two best albums back-to-back: 1997’s progressive Perfect From Now On and 1999’s more pop-minded Keep It Like A Secret. Since then, Built To Spill’s singer-songwriter-guitarist Doug Martsch and an evolving lineup have taken longer and longer between records, and whenever they reemerge, it’s with a set of songs that split the difference between sprawling jams and compact, catchy rock ’n’ roll. Built To Spill appears to be out of the business of making classic albums that muscle its way into the mainstream.
Near the end of “Living Zoo,” the second track on Built to Spill’s eighth and latest full length, a tiger’s roar leaps out from the howling, open-throttle guitars — much as you’d imagine slashing claws tearing through the jungle canopy before arriving at your pliable flesh. Despite the song’s title and subject matter, it’s an effective sneak attack and a reminder of how feral guitar rock can be. It’s also a metaphor for how leader Doug Martsch has emerged reinvigorated and rededicated in the six years since the band’s last—and arguably least feral—LP, There Is No Enemy.
Guitar gymnastics and indie anti-heroism coexist on Built To Spill’s first record in more than six years Guitars. Epic-length expository essays on the waking dream. Playful Neil Young-register vocals woven together with six-string textures that would be equally at home on a Dino Jr album or an Elliott Smith twilight ballad. Godlike guitar riffage and solos bolting to earth like lightning strikes in a tinder-dry forest.