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Friday, October 9, 2015

Built To Spill: Untethered Moon


1) All Our Songs; 2) Living Zoo; 3) On The Way; 4) Some Other Song; 5) Never Be The Same; 6) C.R.E.B.; 7) Another Day; 8) Horizon To Cliff; 9) So; 10) When I'm Blind.

Six years is a long time for youngsters, but not so much for aging rockers — and anyway, the world's demand for new Built To Spill albums had been fairly low even when they were in their prime, so we can certainly excuse Doug Martsch for taking six years off to think whether he still has anything worth saying. We can also excuse him for «spilling» all of the band members and finally recording this new album with an entirely new team — because, let's face it, who but the most dedicated veterans even remember the names of the guys in the rhythm section? (Okay, I remember Scott Plouf, because «Plouf» is hilariously phonosymbolic).

Anyway, if you hoped that a six year break would transform Doug Martsch into some completely different musical entity — that he would take that time to learn to rap or to play in Miley Cyrus' backing band or, at least, to enroll in a Juilliard cello class — Untethered Moon will very quick­ly quash those hopes. The good news is that it is at least a major improvement on There Is No Enemy, with most of the songs showing an energy level that is quite close to You In Reverse, and a few of them even being memorable, or genuinely epic, or epic and memorable. Most im­portantly, Martsch is starting to remember how to combine intellectualism with ass-kicking, and even with hook-making every once in a while.

Take a song like ʽC.R.E.B.ʼ — whose title, I suppose, is short for ʽcAMP Response Element-Building Proteinʼ, and shows that Doug Martsch has a molecular biology textbook at his dis­posal and is not afraid to use it. The lyrics are about long term memory and our dependence on it, but there is a memorable (at least in the short term) riff attached to the song as well, and a strange one at that — a sort of reggae-jazz-pop mix, echoey and sharp, laying the foundation for a pretty hard-hitting track on the whole; and it's a good thing when you cannot bring yourself to decide what is more impressive — that the song is a massive ode to "your hippocampus" or that it fea­tures plenty of moody, captivating guitar tricks.

The fast tempos are also back, starting right off the bat with ʽAll Our Songsʼ, an explosive six-minute romp with Martsch not afraid to let his hair down and let loose with a generic, but trans­fixing rock'n'roll solo towards the end (a bit too short, unfortunately; however, the middle set of overdubs, where several guitars or guitar tones engage in a mutually offensive dia- or quadrilog, is equally impressive in its own way). Eventually, the record comes full circle when ʽWhen I'm Blindʼ brings the fast tempo back for the closing explosion — and this time, with a very lengthy and very drone-influenced lead guitar passage, almost as if in tribute to ʽSister Rayʼ, except this one is probably not all that improvised. But no matter, it's still one of the best series of passionate guitar trills I've heard in a long, long time.

Ultimately, the best thing about Untethered Moon is not the melodies and not the invitation to decode more of Doug Martsch's philosophical messages — it is the understanding that the man is back in his experimental mood, on the search for all sorts of new sounds that he can extract from the six-string. Or, rather, contextually bound sounds — there is a lot of that here, as, for instance, in the last two lines of ʽLiving Zooʼ, where he sings "cause we're lions in our cages / And tigers in tiny spaces" and the guitar gives out a ferociously distorted wah-wah growl right after the word "tigers" — notice that? It's hard not to notice. It's all about these minor touches of creativity these days, rather than grand breakthroughs — but God bless him for these, really.

Some of the songs are still fillerish, for sure, but even those that do not properly register can still be saved by one touch or other — ʽSoʼ, for instance, seems to be fairly uninspired, but the Neil Young-like hyper-distorted guitar tone makes it bone-crunching at top volume; and ʽOn The Wayʼ, a song about overpopulation as a reason for space colonization, has this odd music-hall mid-section, where Doug and his backup echoes chant "Maltesian riot, Maltesian riot" as if they were the Kinks in the middle of a devastating sociological discovery; it's a bit hilarious, but it redeems the tune which is rather lackluster otherwise.

So, overall, this should probably be considered an upward turn of the curve — again, with the usual disclaimer that «all Built To Spill albums sound the same» taken into account, but proving that it is too early to write Doug Martsch off as yet another spent/useless residue of the Nineties alt-rock era; at the very least, Untethered Moon is no less generally enjoyable than any «hot» new release by any aspiring young whippersnapper. Not that anybody should hold out much hope: based on the pattern established by Doug in the past 15 years, his next record should be about as exciting as contemporary Smashing Pumpkins. But that might take another decade or so to pro­duce, and in the meantime, here's a thumbs up for this particular presentation of one man's musi­cally enhanced views on the sorry state and uncertain perspectives of humanity.

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