BUILT TO SPILL: UNTETHERED MOON
So how do you take your rock? Maybe a healthy dose of Neil Young and Crazy Horse mixed with a splash of Pavement and a slice of Dinosaur Jr? Well perhaps I can interest you in a straight shot of Built To Spill…straight, no chaser! Untethered Moon is the latest opus from Doug Martsch and his Idaho outfit, and it keeps alive the impressive string of albums put out by this modern day “guitar hero.” It’s been six years since we last heard from Martsch and co. and in that time he has scrapped an entire album of new material and has replaced Built To Spill’s rhythm section with the guys that use to roadie for them. Gone are Brett Nelson on bass and Scott Plouf behind the kit, while hellos are handed out to Jason Albertini and Steve Gere. Amazingly, in an era where substantial indie rock bands don’t even get a look at major label status, Untethered Moon is the band’s sixth album for Warner Brothers and eighth overall.
Part of the genius of Doug Martsch is his ability to consistently churn out ten new songs every so often and have them fit right in to the existing catalogue without any difficulty whatsoever. And make no mistake: there is a Built To Spill formula that dates back to Perfect From Now On, their debut for Warner Brothers and still their finest hour, and in my opinion anyway, one of modern rock’s finest records! On Perfect, Martsch established that his songs could be five to eight minutes long with lengthy guitar passages that were as hypnotic as they were acrobatic. His lyrics may not as be as wordy as a Morrissey or a Stephen Malkmus but somehow they always wormed their way into your ear. But in the end it’s the sound of that cascading Stratocaster mixing with Martsch’s thin Neil Youngish voice that really resonates with his audience.
Untethered Moon opens with the all you can eat Built To Spill buffet of “All Our Songs.” Clocking in at over six minutes in length, “All Our Songs” is classic BTS with its epic guitar frenzies and a nostalgic Martsch singing about how “All our songs / Back before I even remember / I like all those old songs / Sound like they’ve been there forever.”
Built To Spill albums have always flip-flopped between lengthy guitar jams and more concise pop nuggets and on this record Martsch is at his catchiest best on the tracks “Living Zoo” and “Never Be The Same.” “Zoo” packs a guitar wallop with the lyrical content hinting at comparisons between caged animals and human beings, while “Same” keeps it minimal and to the point but always infectious.
Martsch and his bearded crew get more adventurous with “C.R.E.B.’; the title is a reference to a medical term given to the brain’s learning and retrieval of fear-based long-term memories…at least that’s what Wikipedia tells me! Perhaps in writing “C.R.E.B.” Martsch has remembered that he once threatened to release a reggae album, because the track has distinct elements of both a dub groove and a classic up-stroking reggae guitar refrain. It’s fascinating to hear the band explore new avenues with such unbridled zest.
Built To Spill have always been at their best when Martsch is singing with his lullaby melancholia while his guitar is performing heart resuscitation; on There’s Nothing Wrong With Love it was “Car”, on Perfect From Now On it was “Kicked It In the Sun”, and on Untethered Moon it’s ‘Some other Song.” With his guitar drenched in feedback, Matsch sings of how “ I could live without this feeling blue / I could live without it, how about you?”
With their uniformly brilliant discography and their routinely superior live show, Built To Spill are unquestionably one of modern rock’s finest ambassadors and Untethered Moon only serves to reinforce that belief. The old saying goes that “less is more” but in the case of Built To Spill it’s just a damn shame that we don’t have more than two records for the last ten years! Whatever the case: Untethered Moon is the best record of 2015 to date!
- Johnny Hooper