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Friday, September 4, 2015

Built To Spill: Perfect From Now On

BUILT TO SPILL: PERFECT FROM NOW ON (1997)

1) Randy Described Eternity; 2) I Would Hurt A Fly; 3) Stop The Show; 4) Made-Up Dreams; 5) Velvet Waltz; 6) Out Of Site; 7) Kicked It In The Sun; 8) Untrustable/Part 2 (About Someone Else).

By the time Built To Spill's third and allegedly best album comes along, I think I understand what my major problem with Doug Martsch is. Simply put, the man is just not as much of a «guitar sound magician» as he tries to make us believe. Yes, there is quite a bit of experimentation with song structures, overdubs, guitar tones, and chord progressions going on, but all of it is still strict­ly written in «rock language», and when you look at all the separate parts one by one, they are rarely all that special. The melodies are far too complex to trigger immediate gut reaction à la Nirvana (I think Doug Martsch would have died of shame if he ever got caught with an ʽIn Bloomʼ-type riff on one of his songs), yet not «where-the-hell-did-this-come-from?»-sort of com­plex enough to amaze and astound you.

That said, Martsch at least tries to live up to the album's rashly presumptuous title — especially considering that somehow along the line he managed to secure his band a contract with nothing less than Warner Bros., while at the same time retaining the right to creative freedom. So here was an actual challenge to produce something that could be commercially viable and artistically meaningful at the same time, and, fortunately, the man's ambitions burst through the bland indie-rock shell that so thickly enveloped There's Nothing Wrong With Love and carried him to­wards anthemic, psychedelic, and noise-rich heights. This is very clearly an album that wants, oh so desperately, to be the Grandest Serious Record of the decade, and Martsch invests so much of himself in the effort that I fully understand people who like to swear by this record, particularly if they were in their world-sniffing teens at the time, and Doug Martsch was their Pete Townshend, taken to the next advanced level of conscience.

The songs here are lengthy — indeed, way too lengthy for a potentially commercial album re­leased on a major label — and almost always drift from one melody into a completely different one, even if the key will probably remain the same. It's not as if they really needed to do that, be­cause the permeating mood is consistently philosophical and almost meditative, rather than ad­venturous: Martsch states that in the very first song, dealing with the concept of eternity and its relation with the fleeting individual, and then never really lets go until the last minute. These are not cosmic voyages into some flowery parallel universe — they are trips inside the depth of your mind, sometimes guided by rationality, sometimes just going off the deep end without bothering too much where the stream will end up taking you. They often promise genuine depth and occa­sionally hint at real beauty, although, alas, the hint usually remains just a hint for me.

One problem is that, although the album is still essentially a «pop» album, Martsch's singing abilities remain unsatisfactory. Not only does he have this really limited, annoying vocal range, but his vocals are usually mixed «below» the instruments rather than «above» them, which means that your attention is supposed to be focused on the guitars (or even on the accompanying cello, deftly played by guest musician John McMahon on about half of the tracks) rather than on the singing — but that is just plain silly, considering that the biggest hooks are sometimes planted right in the vocal, not instrumental, bits (like the chorus to ʽI Would Hurt A Flyʼ, or the "and it never will, no it never will" bit on ʽMade-Up Dreamsʼ). Honestly, the man should have taken Pete Townshend's example and arm himself with a more suitable vocalist. I am fairly sure that both John Lennon and Tom Verlaine must be among Doug's chief influences when it comes to both songwriting and singing, but he simply isn't big enough to fill the britches of either one, period. I mean, if he were and if he knew it, why hide your voice behind a wall of sound?

Another problem is that — so sue me — much too often, I still have not the faintest idea what the songs are supposed to be about, or even what my own gut feeling should suggest to me about them. Naturally, I am not talking about straightforward lyrical interpretations — but, you know, something like ʽOut Of Siteʼ is just overflowing with grandeur, starting out like Pink Floyd and ending a bit like ʽStairway To Heavenʼ, yet I have no idea to what exactly this grandeur is being applied. There's a lot of raging interlocking guitars that switch almost at random from playful funky pop to psychedelic rock, but I do not have any emotional rapprochement with the material. It's all very clever, but it rings hollow. Or, sometimes, maybe too derivative — that funky, swampy groove that constitutes the bulk of ʽI Would Hurt A Flyʼ offers a respectable variation on the formula, what with the grinning wah-wah guitar licks and the cello complementing each other in a novel manner, yet the overall effect is still not enough to stop me from smirking, «oh, gee, Funkadelic meets Electric Light Orchestra», almost against my will.

One thing I will admit: this is not «bullshit rock», by any means — not just another «deep» album whose creator just wants to come across as a serious artist, without any emotional or intellectual capacities to back up the ambitions. Rather, Perfect From Now On is that «semi-successful» attempt to justify these ambitions which has something like a 50/50 chance to irritate or amaze, depending on one's DNA peculiarities or the particular context in which this album has been heard. I have listed the primary flaws which render it impotent for me — the vocals, the emotio­nal confusion, the emphasis on length and complexity of the structures rather than the individual good parts — but all of this, to a large degree, just reflects personal taste. Objectively, this is still a huge step forward from the genericity of There's Nothing Wrong With Love and, in terms of scale and ambition, from the technical experimentalism of the band's debut album, so there is no way we could leave this without a thumbs up, be it ever more «brainy» than «heartfelt». 

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