BUILT TO SPILL: ULTIMATE ALTERNATIVE WAVERS (1993)
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.