BUILT TO SPILL: YOU IN REVERSE (2006)
1) Goin' Against Your Mind; 2) Traces; 3) Liar; 4) Saturday; 5) Wherever You Go; 6) Conventional Wisdom; 7) Gone; 8) Mess With Time; 9) Just A Habit; 10) The Wait.
Can I come out and say that You In Reverse is the best ever Built To Spill album? No, that would be illogical and arbitrary. Besides, how can I even begin to pronounce those kinds of judgement on a band that I do not properly «get», whose music I have no deep feel for? And besides, how can a band that is more than ten years into its musical career release a «best» album? Surely that is downright impossible.
But let us just see what we can see about this, on a track-by-track basis, just for the first several numbers. First, ʽGoin' Against Your Mindʼ is fast. I think it's faster than anything they played before, and it helps the sound — you know, «alt-rock» in general, with its preference of mid- and slow tempos, tends to wear you down, and this is oh so true of all preceding Built To Spill records. So the song is almost nine minutes long, but who cares? It's an impressive speed train, quieting down in the middle to let the drummer catch a breath, only to explode into even more aggressive action towards the end. New guitarist Jim Roth, turning the trio into a quartet, probably helps out, but it is unclear if his presence is all that essential — Martsch is a master of overdubbing, and the only reason to bring in an extra guitarist would be to lend a more «live» aura to the proceedings. Hmm, maybe it actually works.
The second track, ʽTracesʼ, slows down the tempo, although not quite to the standard creepy-crawly level of their classic albums — more disturbing is the fact that it never changes the basic rhythm or melodic pattern from start to finish, reflecting a «less challenging» attitude towards songwriting on this record. But if it works, why not? Here, the band establishes an unbreaking, monotonously pulsating melancholic vibe, out of which eventually spirals a moody guitar solo that logically and unavoidably winds itself up to hysterical heights without ever straying away from the rhythmic restrictions of the main melody — simple, evocative, and efficient. Nowhere near as intellectually challenging as ʽRandy Described Eternityʼ, for sure. But somehow, a bit more human, the way I perceive it.
The basic formula will persist: song after song after song, it is usually just one melody per unit (with the notable exception of ʽMess With Timeʼ, which begins like an Oriental-influenced lite metal number and ends like a hard-rock-meets-ska hybrid), and they consistently try to make it simpler, more accessible, maybe even more commercial, but still with enough taste and creativity, and with sufficiently convoluted lyrics that still seem to deal with the meaning of life in their own twisted ways, so as not to disappoint the demanding fan or the casual listener. Some of these songs, like ʽConventional Wisdomʼ with its swirling colorful lead guitar, charging tempo, and merry attitude, are fairly atypical for the band. Others, like the slow, jangly, psycho-dreamy ʽJust A Habitʼ, are more predictable, but the one thing that unites them all is this relative simplicity.
Oh, and another thing might be better production: for some reason, now that they are no longer handled by Phil Ek in the studio, Martsch's vocals suddenly become more upfront, and the songs in general become much more influenced by their soulful, tender, contemplative-Proustian vocalist; even if I am hardly his biggest fan, I must say that now that he is no longer hidden behind the wall of guitars, but given an equal voice with all of them, one major factor of irritation is gone, and the album is generally easier to listen to. It has even got occasional moments of conventional beauty (to which Built To Spill were never complete strangers — remember ʽHazyʼ from the debut album? — but which was rarely a priority): ʽThe Waitʼ, in particular, is a stately, somewhat angelic choice for the album closer, with heavenly slide guitars, echoes, dreamy harmonies, and lyrics that... well, apparently they imply that your entire life consists of nothing but waiting. Yes, in a certain way I can see that. I can also see how it would agree with Built To Spill's overall musical philosophy and its somewhat Taoist overtones.
Although the qualitative gaps between all these albums are really small, to the extent that you will probably either love everything by the band, hate everything by the band, or (like myself) respect everything by the band without getting infected by it, I kinda sorta think of You In Reverse as a major turn. Better bands would lose out by simplifying and streamlining their sound, but for Martsch and his pals it might actually be a better bet to stay away from too much experimentalism and esotericism, and concentrate on these «single-shot» songs that lock onto a groove and ultimately, sooner or later, make it work, no matter how trivial or boring it may have sounded during its first minute. A thumbs up, then, although do keep in mind that for a band like this, it is much better to just apply one single judgement to all the albums at the same time.