BUILT TO SPILL: THERE'S NOTHING WRONG WITH LOVE (1994)
1) In The Morning; 2) Reasons; 3) Big Dipper; 4) Car; 5) Fling; 6) Cleo; 7) The Source; 8) Twin Falls; 9) Some; 10) Distopian Dream Girl; 11) Israel's Song; 12) Stab; 13) Preview.
Perhaps I am not getting something, but I actually hear this record as a notable, if not blatantly notable regression from the band's debut. Naturally, there's nothing wrong with love, but there is something wrong about starting out as a small, instrumentally traditional, but decidedly experimental combo and then, once you have laid out a claim, retreating into safer, much better known and exploited territory. In other words, Built To Spill's sophomore effort is a more accessible, more easily understandable, more emotionally predictable, and more intellectually boring record than their debut — and it really needn't have been that way.
The songs, for the most part, are indeed about love, although I couldn't vouch for everything — to do that, I'd have to check the texts, and, unfortunately, Martsch's sneery, slightly Lennon-esque (but much less sharp) vocals just do not inspire me into a detailed investigation of what's under the hood. In any case, there isn't a single ballad here with the emotional grip of ʽHazyʼ — as a matter of fact, the album does not distinguish well enough between rockers and ballads anyway. It's all just an interminable hookless mess of bland syncopated alt-rock riffage; thank God that they do not at least go overboard with the grungy distortion schtick, because with just a little push they could have become an early predecessor to Nickelback.
I mean, the song ʽCarʼ was a goddamn single here. Speaking of singles, is there a single reason why that song should command our special attention? It has no hooklines whatsoever, the singing is completely expressionless, and the use of cello is pretty much wasted since it just blends together with the bassline. Rotten dynamics, too: both of the solos are mixed in way too low, so it all feels more like obligatory bits of jamming rather than elements of development. Nor does the melody change throughout — just riffing on that same chord. If this is the single, how could you expect the album to be any better? It isn't. It's all a letdown.
Arguably, Martsch's big mistake here was to make a «soulful» record, something like a cross between a set of John Lennon bedroom guitar demos and sentimental Californian singer-songwriting, combining the harshness and directness of the former with the vulnerability and sweetness of the latter. Perhaps I am messing up the real influences here, but no matter: the important thing is that, in the process, the songs all got more simple, poppy, and samey, which is just not good, because Buit To Spill are not masters of the pop hook. A few nicely placed vocal lines on ʽReasonsʼ and maybe ʽBig Dipperʼ are still offset by the overall grayness of the arrangements, and I remember absolutely nothing about any of the other songs, not even after three or four listens.
Actually, I do remember one of the lines on ʽStabʼ — "I wrote a song, it was slow and long". Not all the songs here are slow and long, but most of them feel slow and long, largely because they are based on such familiar and uninteresting rhythm and lead patterns. But if it is not the innovative guitar work, what could it be then that could make this album work in return? The singing? Bland, if at least not over-dramatized. The arrangements? They're all the same: guitar-based, too restrained to kick your rock'n'roll ass and too brutal to have subtlety. The bare fact that this does not sound like Pearl Jam or Smashing Pumpkins? Well, it does not. In fact, it all still sounds more «wise» than your average (or even your average famous) alt-rock band, precisely because of Martsch's restrained approach — but what can I do with myself if all this «wisdom» just deteriorates into blandness and boredom at the blink of an eye?
The least boring track on the album is the final joke — ʽPreviewʼ, a spoof on bonus tracks that gives us a glimpse of the «upcoming» album by the band, with brief snippets of several «songs» (parodies on punk and power ballads) that actually sound more exciting than the album itself. Even if a few tunes have potential, they would still need to be rewritten and re-recorded to realize it fully (ʽReasonsʼ, that's the one I am especially looking at — I wonder what somebody like John Lennon could have made out of it, had it fallen into his hands? It's definitely got a «Lennon-type chord change» to it around the 1:02 mark, and later). As it is, I can only view the record as yet another of the many mid-1990s failures to bring intelligent guitar-based singer-songwriter rock back to its former standards, and sorrowfully award it a thumbs down.