Album Review: Built to Spill — “Untethered Moon”

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Until I can find a way to write for a living, Information Technology pays the bills for me. What does this have to do with Built to Spill, you ask? Well, I was working on toning out thirty plus network drops (Ethernet cable runs through ceilings and behind walls) about a year ago at 1:00 AM when a band came on my Pandora “Background Music” radio station called, you guessed it, Built to Spill. I remember being so captivated that I was extracted from the zombie-like state of tedium that is toning out network drops and forced to take a break. I never take breaks. I created a station based solely on this new band, and when I found I wasn’t able to get enough from even that I turned to Amazon and started burning through that week’s paycheck. When the work was done and I was left to wind down for an hour or so before hitting the sleeping bag to rest for the next day of work, I cranked this raw yet somehow thoroughly complex brand of music into my brain while reading up on them online.

Built to Spill was formed in 1992 by Doug Martsch, formally of Treepeople. His original idea for the band was that he would maintain full creative control, handling the bulk of the songwriting duties and starting fresh with a new lineup after every album and subsequent tour. Sounds very Roger Waters-ish, but it worked for Built to Spill. The lineup remained a bit more consistent than that for the most part, with contributors Scott Plouf (drums) and Brett Nelson (bass) becoming permanent members in 1997 and tour support guitarist Jim Roth joining up full time in 2006. This lineup has wavered a bit, but has stayed largely the same. I could easily fill this post with a timeline of the comings and goings, but you get the idea.

So, unlike many faithful, longtime fans, I only had to wait a year after discovering this Indie-rock giant for a taste of some new sound. When I saw NPR review them I knew this new album was serious business. But who cares about NPR? We all want to know what Earl Yorke thinks of it, right? Right?

(Is there anyone in here?)

The record launches with All Our Songs, with its thumping drums and layering of raw, distorted guitar. This track is intentionally chaotic and rough, a butter face on a gorgeous body. It is a fantastic lead off, prepping the listener for the heaviness to come. With its length I expected it to be more of an instrumental piece. Instead we get an even balance of vocals and musical composition, breaking down completely into chaos at the end before coming to an abrupt close.

Some Other Song, the album’s fourth track grabbed me immediately. A brief smattering of percussion leads into distorted guitar, slow-paced and almost sinister. Guitars converse for some time, begging a familiar question: will this be entirely instrumental? Out of nowhere a crying guitar cuts into the dark euphony, rising above it all before vocals enter with, “I can’t wait to get back home to you. Talk about the things that we’ve been through. There is nothing I would rather do. Something’s gonna happen pretty soon.” This balance of deceptively simplistic lyrics and painstakingly composed instrumentals set this track out as one of the most impressive.

Another Day is where this record starts to feel as though it’s entering concept album territory. It is hard, gritty. It feels dirty from the start. Distorted vocals enter, barely audible, conveying equal parts anger and frustration. Tight guitar work is tied flawlessly to the percussion. This track isn’t much for lyrics, it lets the instruments do most of the talking before giving way to Horizon to Cliff. This is a slow track which contrasts greatly with Another Day. We find a despondence, a loneliness here, as if this song depicts the consequences of the implied loss of control in Another Day. It threatens to blow up at the very end before mercilessly snuffing itself out.

Heavy, syrupy distortion drips slowly in with So. Quick drum work forms a solid foundation while a guitar cries lonely in the background. Before long instrumentals surrender to a lone guitar and “Well, where did you go? Why did you leave? Why did you know? How, how does it feel, when your’re the one who is alone? Someone, somewhere, somehow said so.” This track feels yet again a retelling of some consequence realized, something that occurred as the result of some action or inaction. The pacing quickens, the track explodes into controlled chaos before dying in a squeal of feedback.

And we move into When I’m Blind, launching with the band’s signature slow, raw distortion. Nothing complicated. Martsch sings softly, “When will I realize when I’m blind? When will I realize when I’m blind? Stars fall down, burn the ground…” the pace quickens, percussion begins to drive the track along like the whip of an overzealous jockey on the rump of his mount. Guitar grows discordant over a simplistic bass line and dogged, unchanging percussion. Lead guitar plays center stage here, alternating, undulating, cannibalizing itself. It is an orgy of emotion; angry, frustrated, misunderstood, resentful. Drums build as the track reaches its sixth minute, amplifying the emotion, almost pushing it beyond itself. The track threatens to lose form before crashing back upon itself once again. Guitars cry at one another before surrendering to the lyrics that take this sucker home: “When will I realize when I’m blind? When I’m blind I’ll see all that is wrong with me.”

I think I sat in my chair in silence for about two solid minutes after this album closed, still reacting in its absence. With so much power and emotion pumped into ten tracks, it left me feeling like I had been loved and then rejected by the music, edging the line between controlled mess and fanatical stalker in my need for more. The next thing I did was hit up their website where I ordered it on vinyl because I can only imagine how great it sounds on that format.

I have a new pity for those who had to wait six years between releases with this band.

“Untethered Moon” — 8.5/10

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