BUILT TO SPILL: ANCIENT MELODIES OF THE FUTURE (2001)
1) Strange; 2) The Host; 3) In Your Mind; 4) Alarmed; 5) Trimmed; 6) Happiness; 7) Don't Try; 8) You Are; 9) Fly Around My Pretty Little Miss; 10) The Weather.
Oh no! «The magic is gone!», a lot of fans seem to complain about this record, implying that the new millennium's cosmic rays have somehow managed to break through the skull of Doug Martsch, of all people, corrode his genius, and destabilize his vision so now Built To Spill sound like «any other generic indie-rock band». Such a shame. I do have an alternate opinion, though, seeing as how I was always dubious of that genius in the first place — maybe it's not so much the music that has changed, but simply the people, who were once listening to Built To Spill in their easily impressionable, character-forming teen years, happened to grow up... and suddenly find out that Doug Martsch never did?
Because, honestly, if there is one big flaw to Ancient Melodies Of The Future, it is simply that the band refuses to evolve. We have largely the same formula here — dreamy, philosophical pop songs with dense layers of guitar overdubs and monotonous vocals that have little hope of clambering into the open from under that thick mesh of competing guitars. In this context, how could you even begin to answer the question of which songs are «better» — the ones here or the ones on the preceding «golden trio» of BtS records? Okay, so these ones are shorter, with fewer melody changes along the way than there used to be, and maybe the overall number of complex riffs has somewhat decreased, but probably not because Martsch has run out of them (a guy like Martsch can never really run out of complex riffs), but because he may have wanted a slightly more straightforward, in-yer-face approach.
Personally, I have never witnessed any magic on any Built To Spill album — intellectual attempts at credibly modeling magic, yes, but not real magic, and in that respect, I see no difference between the old shit and the new shit. A song like ʽAlarmedʼ, for instance: any true Martsch fan should just love everything about it, from the grand opening with the swooping strings whistling over your head like bombers, to the equally grand lyrics ("I'm alarmed and I can't help from / Crashing onto this island we've become") to the way it gradually segues into the noisy coda, where Martsch's knightly challenge of "did you make it all wrong, so wrong?" is drowned in a sea of ominous strings and nastily dissonant keyboards. I am unable to love it, for all the already known reasons (bad singing, messy production, inability to make the best melodic elements of the song take heavy precedence over the average elements, etc.), but how could anybody who does not view these reasons as a problem not love it? Beats me.
Or a song like ʽHappinessʼ. Slide guitar opening with an almost Sleepy John Estes sound to it! Then it kinda sorta becomes closer to the Black Crowes, but who could blame them for wanting to try and combine slide with distortion? "Happiness will only happen when it can" — yet another of those simple philosophical maxims from Mr. Martsch, no better and no worse than any such statement made previously. What's not to like? Or ʽIn Your Mindʼ — backward solos, mysterious Eastern-flavored mellotrons, a sludgy fuzzy guitar interlude, and a psychedelic climactic puncture in the chorus ("no one can see in your MIIIIND!..." — a simple truth, delivered not for the sake of providing hitherto unknown knowledge, but for the sake of letting you know that the music of Built To Spill serves to hypothetically reflect the black box activities that take place under your skull, and is thus historically and spiritually linked to... okay, did I ever mention that Doug Martsch might be seriously influenced by John Lennon circa 1966? Just in case I didn't, ʽShe Said She Saidʼ is, like, the thickest root supporting the BtS trunk).
But do not get me wrong: for me at least, the album was just as unmemorable as almost everything that preceded it. And the reason why, this time around, I wouldn't want to give it a thumbs up is not because the music is «bad» (Doug Martsch came to me in my dreams one of these nights and told me confidentially that he never once wrote a bad song, so I have no reason to disbelieve him if he went to all this trouble to show up), but because it has become fixed and locked in «autopilot» mode. The songs still feature plenty of the band's instrumental trickery (I did not yet mention the multi-guitar storm attack on ʽTrimmed And Burningʼ, which is one of the most impressive musical moments on the entire record) — they just refuse to take one step beyond that trickery, or even expand the bag of already explored tricks. The formula works, but now it thrusts itself in your face — «look, we can still write new songs in the same old ways!» But what works for intelligently anti-intellectual bands like AC/DC, can hardly be said to work for arrogantly philosophical bands like Built To Spill; a philosopher, after all, can never be satisfied with his current findings, but has to constantly dig deeper and cast wider in order to even preserve, let alone expand, his reputation. Therefore, yes, somewhat of a disappointment — but only because I was never a big fan of this band in the first place. If you were, save yourself the worry: the classic Built To Spill sound remains completely intact on this short, tight, self-assured, and «creatively» constructed album (where the quotation marks refer to the modern, somewhat mechanistic and, I would say, rather boring understanding of the term).