Built to Spill – Keep It Like a Secret (1999)
I came into this review with the resolution that I would not compare these guys to Pavement or Modest Mouse but a song named “Center of the Universe” makes it almost too easy. Built to Spill were only ever good a guitar hook, and a vocal hook sung in Doug Martsch’s unbearable whine if we were lucky. “Center of the Universe” has both of those things, and it’s one of the best songs on the album because of it (and also uncoincidentally, because it’s the shortest track on the album, clocking in at under 3 minutes). George Starostin describes the opening riff as a “musical vortex”, and that is soon followed by a lovely, smoother, repeated interval, which is itself followed by one of Martsch’s best vocal melodies. But as mentioned, nothing else happens, well, except backing vocals come in during the second verse that don’t add anything. I think they were going for the “falling-off-the-cliff” vibe that Mike Mills added to “So. Central Rain,” but that was more ambitious than these guys are musically capable of. Compare to: Modest Mouse’s “Dark Center of the Universe,” which has more guitar hooks, more vocal hooks, choruses that explode in Pixies-inspired fashion from the verses (instead of being indistinguishable as they are in this case), and simply smarter lyrics (“Everyone’s life ends but no one ever completes it”). So why are we even here?
All that being said, I really do like “The Plan”, and I’m certain it’s the band’s best song. Another great intro: the wave of drums coming up underneath Martsch and crashing down into the guitar chords; each of Martsch’s lines becoming a new wave, each time crashing back down and starting up again before eventually the guitar solo as tidal wave comes in and washes everything away into a quieted outro. Put another way, I have yet to read any review that answers my question, but George Starostin’s review of the album comes close: “Smart guitar melodies, smart lyrics, smartly engineered seams between the different parts — and when I say “smart”, […] I mean really evocative, emotionally charged melodies that transfer a whole variety of vibes, most of them positive and uplifting, even if the lyrics usually deal with various personal problems.” The only time where I find that that’s all true is on “The Plan.”
I found another review that compares “Carry the Zero” to Cocteau Twins (it is the prettiest guitar on the album, but they’re not even in the same league, obviously) and calls “Sidewalk” classic indie rock, but I can’t recall any classic indie rock songs with a bridge this fucking boring. The only other things of note: “Time Trap” has a lovely intro (hit next afterwards), “Else” has another one of those guitar hooks (“Else”’s has an oscillated one that recalls a hook from another band that I can’t put my finger on right now, but I’m willing to bet it’s Modest Mouse, shiiiiiiit) and Martsch’s whine really works for “You Were Right,” defeated by all the lies and how all the cliches turned out to be true.
Going back to Starostin, he asks: “I have no idea what it would take to make these songs really work — additional instruments beside guitars?” No, that couldn’t possibly be it, right? Adding anything else of note to this one(/two if we’re lucky)-trick pony? (And if you read his whole review, you’d question how he came to a positive conclusion at all: most of what he writes is neutral (my favourite line: “Other than this little detail (namely, that all the songs here kinda suck), all the songs on this album are excellent”) to negative (“Bluntly speaking, the guy came up with potentially sharp hooks, and then spent his time in the studio dulling them up”).)
And yet: this one has more guitar hooks than any other Built to Spill album, which also means this one’s their best. What a world.
Built to Spill – There’s Nothing Wrong with Love (1994)
Surprised to research that Doug Martsch was in his mid-20s for this one; there’s a youthful optimism here (“In the morning, feeling half-right!”; “I need a car, you need a map, who needs a guide?”; the sentiment of “When you see a documentary and know the outcome and that it’s fucked / You still hope Hitler will blow up and that Kennedy will duck” on “The Source”, which is the only good part of that awful-sounding song) and his whine – it is a whine; he’s not a good singer – sounds even younger. But I’ve never cared about this band so much as I cared about their whimsical road-trip around America in the summer with a few friends, a few guitars and a few beers in tow, but I can get that sound from tons of other American indie bands; namely Pavement and Modest Mouse. This one’s good for a few hooks: the guitar-as-keyboards of “In the Morning” at the 0:40 mark; the guitar line of “Reasons” at the 0:43 mark; the one from “Car” that goes “I wanna see it now” followed by the quicker way Martsch runs through the next line; the sprightly acoustic guitar contrasting with the sustained cello on “Fling” (best not to pay attention to the lyrics on masturbating to memories). The next two albums are good for a few hooks too, just a few more than this one.