Search This Blog

Friday, August 21, 2015

Built To Spill: Ultimate Alternative Wavers


1) The First Song; 2) Three Years Ago Today; 3) Revolution; 4) Shameful Dread; 5) Nowhere Nothin' Fuckup; 6) Get A Life; 7) Built To Spill; 8) Lie For A Lie; 9) Hazy; 10) Built Too Long (parts 1, 2 & 3).

The classic associations that usually spring up in any account of the story of Built To Spill are Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr. — two of the major «ugly-guitar-sound» combos of the Eighties, both of which transparently influenced Built To Spill, the former in terms of freedom of sound and expe­rimental approach, the latter in terms of «dirty jamming» which, in turn, goes all the way back to Neil Young, Pete Townshend and the like (echoes of whom are also sometimes heard in the music — ironically, one of the kick-ass riffs upon which they stumble in the ʽBuilt Too Longʼ jam happens to be the riff that Pete often played live in the jam section of ʽMy Generationʼ).

Curiously, though, my first association with these guys concerned neither Sonic Youth nor Dino­saur Jr., but rather a somewhat more distant and less frequently quoted relative — Television! If anything, Built To Spill for the 1990s (and this is especially obvious on this first, and still very much derivative, album) were exactly what Television were for the 1970s: a small-format, but large-ambition band, with a vision expressed through a haughty, sternly determined manner of singing and all sorts of challenging guitar interplay, combining elements of folk, punk, drone, blues improvisation, and noise. In other words, grand prog-rock deconstructed to fit the limita­tions of a small guitar-based combo — something that must probably require a lot of clout and a lot of skill to do right.

Television did it perfectly all right; as to Built To Spill, while my respect for them even in this early incarnation is enormous, I am not too sure if Ultimate Alternative Wavers, a rather boldly self-aggrandizing title as it is, truly constitutes «great» music. There is no denying the feats of imagination that went into the construction of these songs: this is not «math-rock» as such, since the music does not demand perfect rhythmic precision at each nanosecond, and it is definitely not the «nuts-rock» of Primus, either, but the song structures are quite complex and challenging all the same. The band core, consisting of Doug Martsch on guitar/vocals and Brett Netson on se­cond guitar and/or bass, like to go from folk to rock to funk to noise and back within the same song — this is why the songs usually take quite a bit of time to develop, but this is definitely not wasted time: the only track on which the band members could be accused of a little self-indul­gence is the closing jam ʽBuilt Too Longʼ, whose title is already self-ironic, but even there we have a distinct three-way partition that indicates... well, composition.

On the other hand, the same approach also reveals the major weakness of Built To Spill: a lack of obvious purpose to this music. Sure you could address this criticism to the likes of King Crimson as well, but, first of all, Built To Spill do not rock as hard as King Crimson, second, they do not have as many impressive riffs as King Crimson, and third and perhaps most important, their level of technical mastery, though easily comparable to Television, hardly even begins approaching the Fripp/Belew standards, so you do not have this extra bonus of being totally dazzled by the per­formances, though you might be amused or intrigued by them. These are interesting songs, sure enough, but I have a hard time «feeling» them.

As an example, take the first song, conveniently titled ʽThe First Songʼ because, indeed, it is not easy to come up with a better title. It seems to be a poetic complaint about the hardships of living in a world in which the protagonist does not really belong: "How can I not believe in things that everybody else sees?" The music does seem to be tailored accordingly, with minor key folksy strumming à la Led Zep, woman-tone-heavy electric wailings, and brooding psychedelic solos weeping over each other from two or three different guitars ­— yet somehow none of this trans­lates into conventional desperation that could break your heart. I don't know, maybe it's some­thing to do with Doug's voice, which I find rather bland and «just decent», or maybe it is the lack of a well-defined core theme for the song (they seem to just be happy to move from Led Zep to Hendrix to Television to The Cure and shove in more, more, more without being afraid of dis­orienting the listener — which is exactly, I believe, what is happening), or maybe they don't get the best possible production... anyway, something just doesn't click, as formally cool as the entire experience could be called.

When they wind up the tempo and crank up the volume, like on ʽRevolutionʼ or ʽGet A Lifeʼ, songs whose titles, lyrics and moods «call to action», the overall effect is the same: the music is more complex than on your average Neil Young song, but the cumulative reaction is nowhere near as violent — when Neil really gets into it, it makes you want to kill (with love, of course — what else?), but when Doug and Brett get into it (like on the aggressive solo section of ʽGet A Lifeʼ), it makes you go... «wow, cool sonic overlays, dudes». Like when they solo on ʽLie For A Lieʼ, in these short little «telephonic» bursts of bubbly melody: cute and weird, but not quite as meaningful as, for instance, when Talking Heads do so on Remain In Light songs.

Arguably the most conventional song on the album, a leisurely ballad with a grand lead guitar melody, is ʽHazyʼ, and perhaps not surprisingly, it also has the most soulful and relatable vocal performance from Doug: "Hazy / Just because sometimes you make me crazy" actually gives us a vulnerable human being, and serves as the emotional hub of the album — too bad that it comes almost at the very end, as if they were actually ashamed of having an accessible song like that sitting next to all those feats of imaginative overdubbing.

Do not get me wrong: even without ʽHazyʼ, the album would still get an unquestionable thumbs up from me — just because few of the songs work instantaneously on a «gut level» does not mean that the album as a whole does not work on some other level of conscience. At the very least, in the most formal way it is a real wonder what these three guys have managed to concoct with just the most basic of instrumentation, in an age where «alt-rock» was already beginning to feel a little like a dirty word; no wonder that a cult was rather quickly formed around the band, praising them for salvaging the underground in an era when R.E.M. and Nirvana were perceived as a threat to the underground's very existence as an «underground». To do so, however, they had to produce music that was denser, less easily accessible, and less emotionally devastating — had they done otherwise, you know, they risked selling as many copies as Nirvana, and that would have been the end of small club elitism. Or maybe Doug Martsch could end up killing himself, so thank God for them small record labels.


  1. Of course I'm blase and everything, but I don't recognize any complexity in Get a Life. Just a straightforward 4/4 rock song with some distorted guitar and overdubs. OK, granted - there are two or three tempo changes, but that's all, but they sound more accidental than purposeful to me.
    1993 you say? That was the year of Therapy?'s breakthrough.

    Wipes the floor with these guys.

  2. I'm considering getting into late 80's and early 90's underground guitar music and shoegaze, because it's a genre that I'm rather unfamiliar with and that I previously dismissed as derivative. So far I acquired (but have not yet listened to) albums of My Bloody Valentine, Jesus & Mary Chain, Boo Radleys, Ride, Chapterhouse, and of course I was already familiar with more well-known bands like R.E.M., Nirvana, The Cure, Alice in Chains, Blur etc.

    Am I missing any important bands? For instance, I have never heard of either Built To Spill and Dinosaur Jr. And what albums are recommended for first listening?


    1. I would consider these "hot streaks" of three albums to be good introductions to these bands (my particular favorites are in bold):

      Built to Spill (doesn't really belong, but you asked) - Perfect from Now On, Keep It like a Secret, Ancient Melodies of the Future

      Dinosaur Jr. - You're Living All Over Me, Bug, Green Mind

      The Fall - Too erratic for me to recommend consecutive albums, but Hex Enduction Hour, This Nation's Saving Grace, and Middle-Class Revolt are my favorites.

      The Flaming Lips - Hit to Death in the Future Head, Transmissions from the Satellite Heart, Clouds Taste Metallic (but everything from In a Priest-Driven Ambulance on, excluding At War with the Mystics, is fantastic, my favorite being the complete-at-last DVD+CD release of The Soft Bulletin)

      The Jesus Lizard - Head, Goat, Liar

      Melvins - Bullhead, Lysol, Houdini

      Primus - Sailing the Seas of Cheese, Pork Soda, Tales from the Punchbowl (I can't pick a favorite here, but Sailing the Seas of Cheese is the most popular)

      Screaming Trees - Uncle Anesthesia, Sweet Oblivion, Dust

      Sonic Youth - Evol, Sister, Daydream Nation (but Goo and Washing Machine are essential once you've heard those)

      Throwing Muses - House Tornado, Hunkpapa, The Real Ramona (the self-titled comeback from 2003 is also excellent)

      The Tragically Hip - Road Apples, Fully Completely, Day for Night

      Yo La Tengo - Painful, Electr-O-Pura, I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One

      The first two Madder Rose albums

      The last two Slowdive albums

      I'm sure that I'm missing some necessary bands (and I'm sure that I've covered at least some ground that you already know), but I had worse ways to spend 10 minutes. You'd do well to check out Mark Prindle's site if you want something substantial (and funny as all hell).

    2. Wow, thanks a lot. <3

  3. @Anonymous: I'd try at least the following for alternative 80s 90s alternative guitar rock:
    Sonic Youth - Daydream Nation
    Dinosaur Jr - You're living all over me
    Dream Syndicate - Days of wine and roses
    Husker Du - Zen Arcade
    Pavement - Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain (although many prefer slanted and enchanted)
    Guided by voices - Bee thousand
    Fugazi - Repeater
    Slint - Spiderland
    Yo la tengo - Painful
    Luna - Lunapark

    Shoegaze / dream pop-rock:
    My Bloody Valentine - Loveless
    Cocteau Twins - Treasure
    Ride - Nowehere
    Slowdive - Souvlaki
    Galaxie 500 - On Fire
    The Verve - Storm in Heaven
    Boo Radleys - Giant Steps
    Catherine Wheel - Chrome
    Sigur Ros - Aegatis Byrjun
    Beach House - Teen Dream
    Alcest - Souvenirs d'un autre monde

    Other Anonymous recommendations are pretty spot ons as well. You'll fidn your way from there.