With his latest album, frontman and founder Doug Martsch vividly reminds us that the art form still has some kick in it.
BY JOHN SCHACHT
Near the end of “Living Zoo,” the second track on Built to Spill’s eighth and latest full length, a tiger’s roar leaps out from the howling, open-throttle guitars — much as you’d imagine slashing claws tearing through the jungle canopy before arriving at your pliable flesh. Despite the song’s title and subject matter, it’s an effective sneak attack and a reminder of how feral guitar rock can be. It’s also a metaphor for how leader Doug Martsch has emerged reinvigorated and rededicated in the six years since the band’s last—and arguably least feral—LP, There Is No Enemy.
There’s comfort in Martsch’s allegiance to his craft and aesthetic, especially in an age where epic guitar rock is even more of an outlier than it was when Martsch founded Built to Spill in the mid-‘90s. But Untethered Moon—initially released on Record Store Day 2015 as limited edition vinyl—is as much about rediscovering purpose and coming to terms with it as it is a celebration of rock ‘n’ roll basics. In the intervening six years, Martsch scrapped an entire LP in 2012; saw two Built to Spill mainstays (bassist Brett Nelson and drummer Scott Plouf) quit the band; hired a new rhythm section (Steve Gere and Jason Albertini, on drums and bass respectively), joining him guitarist Jim Roth); and turned to long-time friend and Quasi founder Sam Coomes for production help. (Check the band’s Wikipedia page for details about its personnel history.)
We can now say that those moves proved fortuitous. Opening track “All Our Songs” works like a statement of purpose, six-minutes of ferocious, fuzzed-out and wah-wah guitar layers stacked atop a rumbling beat that picks up steam while Martsch chronicles coming to terms with what Built to Spill means:
Now we settle for this complicated metaphor/and leave the simple truth unsaid/all night we listened to their second record/it had all these songs/sounded like we’re in this together/and I found a place/where I know I’ll always be tethered/and I knew when I woke up/rock and roll will be here forever.
Like other cri du coeurs about rock ‘n’ roll’s staying power — think of The Who’s ironic Rock Is Dead; Long Live Rock! project — there’s an undercurrent of worry in Martsch’s declaration; has rock dead-ended? But the rest of Untethered Moon reminds us the art form still has some kick left in it. It helps that the usual Built to Spill narrative footholds are here: The obsession with space travel in the bouncy-yet-dystopic “On the Way”; the fascination with the inner workings of the brain in “C.R.E.B.,” a syncopated number whose title stands for the “cAMP responsive element binding protein” that links memory and DNA; and the general existential concerns that come from contemplating both of those topics.
The latter infuses the LP throughout, expressed with barn-burning urgency and maximum guitar fuzz on “Another Day” — “I wake up every day just the same/somewhere between stars and sand/and I was made from material that could never last/an obsolescence no one would have planned.” In these twenty-teen, electro-pop days, it’s refreshing to hear a songwriter tackle topics of existential depth, just as it’s a reminder of why indie rock clicked with college crowds first. That’s likely still true even if the music is more infused with middle-age angst about the cold immensity of the universe – inside us, and spreading out to infinity – than college-era awe.
There’s also familiarity in the up-tempo/downcast-narrative pop of “Never Be the Same” (this LP’s “Liar”), the gentle and pensive ballad (“Horizon to Cliff”), and the epic guitar workout (in this instance, LP-closing “When I’m Blind”). If there are changes in Built to Spill’s script, they are wrinkles rather than earthquakes — and they’re primarily provided by Coomes’ co-production, which gives the LP a rough-hewn, live-sounding edge, and Albertini and Gere, who supply one impressive pocket after another over the course of the 10 songs.
Untethered Moon may lack the shiny object-appeal of the band’s debut, or the epic brilliance of their major label debut, Perfect From Now On. But it showcases Martsch’s strengths and suggests an artist who, despite his qualms about universes micro and macro, has reached a comforting détente with who he is.