Back in my arts-editing days at this paper, I made a solemn vow to our readers to keep the section jam-band-free. OK, it was mainly a pledge to myself, but, aside from a Blues Traveler short or two, I kept it. Perennial Forbes chart presence Jerry Garcia was finally, gratefully, dead, and I considered it a cruel turn of Fortuna’s wheel that scores of epigones were crawling out of the nation’s weedier, reedier backwater burgs, microbrews and kefir dripping from their beards, to take his place. So it serves me right that I’ve fallen hard for what amounts to a psychedelic indie-rock jam band—from Boise.
At least Built to Spill is wise enough to take Neil Young as its ’60s-era lodestar, rather than the nine-and-a-half-fingered Sage of Marin. But make no mistake, I was in jam-band heaven Sunday night at the 9:30 Club, where BtS stopped on its tour behind its fifth album proper. How do I know this? A lot of the songs started with guitar solos. How else? Tape traders. I was standing not 10 feet from a ponytailed guy videotaping from the balcony, and my set-list scribbling attracted a friendly fellow who wanted to know if I had any live DATs or CDs I’d burned. I didn’t, but he seemed happy to rectify the situation. (Note to music-biz apologists: Don’t fret—he had already bought Live, even though it had been out only six days; besides, he said, the band’s pro-taping.)
The problem with jam-band heaven was never the harps, the angels, or the clouds—it was the tunes. As someone who is straight in the Richmanian sense, not “like Hippie Johnny,” I’ve never seen the point in music that can be enjoyed only under the influence. Fodder for a psychic class of people who never realize—sober, sotted, or righteously reformed—how tedious they can be has always pissed me off. But BtS crafts clear-headed psychedelia; the trips can be long and strange, but no one is asked to pony up the fare without knowing the destination.
Psychedelia has always trafficked in consciousness and conscience, but BtS works a uniquely timely twist on the genre. Whereas the ’60s were about expanding consciousness and restricting conscience to the political, Doug Martsch and crew want to expand conscience and restrict consciousness to the personal. Act morally, think locally.
No bad trips doesn’t mean there aren’t bummers. Lead singer, songwriter, and Strat-master Martsch has an active superego. He talks about good, bad, right, and wrong more than just about anybody else who doesn’t have “Reverend” or “Tree” in his name. “Randy Described Eternity,” which kicks off Built to Spill’s majestic 1997 major-label bow, Perfect From Now On, and appears on the nine-track Live, lays out a sci-fi-apocalyptic vision of the length of the hereafter. Given the fundamentalist theme (“Where you gonna be? Where will you spend eternity?”) and Martsch’s high-lonesome tenor, I like to think of the song as the band’s bluegrass number, though it sounds nothing like bluegrass.
The cosmos frequently turns Martsch contemplative, sending his guitar spiraling toward the outer reaches, but his musings usually settle on the here-and-now—not that he finds more mundane questions any easier to resolve. “Big Dipper,” a skewed start-stop pop song on Sunday’s set list from 1994’s There’s Nothing Wrong With Love, may start with a childhood reminiscence of stargazing, but it ends with beer, a lonely TV dinner, and a plea to be rescued. Martsch’s usual quandaries center on the damage people can do to each other with the things they say and the often-thwarted desire to fix it.
“Joyride,” a ramshackle three-chord gem collected on a 1996 singles sampler, The Normal Years, was the poppiest thing the band played at the 9:30 Club. With its Cure-like sour-bubblegum chorus (“Love is just a joyride/Drink a lot of beer and climb inside/Lay your foot down on the gas/Leave it there until you crash”), it’s in fact the poppiest thing the band has recorded. Its second verse goes the Violent Femmes’ “third verse, same as the first” one better, abandoning the story of star-crossed young lovers for a primer in playing the song. It works! Twice through it at home and I was serenading a hapless cold-caller who had interrupted, trying to sell me some vinyl siding.
In treating its punk roots so cavalierly, BtS was announcing that it had no intention of staying on the standard verse-chorus-verse route. Martsch had done time with Seattle’s far more conventional Treepeople, and he was through with it. At the end of There’s Nothing Wrong With Love, a hidden-track mock advertisement for the next album took a minute or so to dispatch hardcore, New Wave, pop-punk, and power balladry. Built to Spill was looking for a different way to grow a song.
The core unit of Martsch, bassist Brett Nelson, and former Spinanes drummer Scott Plouf that united for Perfect From Now On marked the band’s first stable lineup. In a letter dated spring ’97 posted on the band’s Web site, Martsch commented that the original Treepeople “were tighter and more focused than any band I’ve been in before or since.” Anyone who saw Built to Spill at the Black Cat on its Perfect tour likely would have agreed. Supporting a polished, heavily overdubbed, almost orchestral record, the underrehearsed trio seemed much smaller than life. Now expanded to a practiced quartet with the addition of guitarist Jim Roth, who handles the left-channel duties on Live, the touring outfit is worthy of the band’s catalog.
And it feels free to reinterpret. Not until Perfect did BtS find the finesse to make Martsch’s pointedly episodic song structures and elliptical lyrics cohere, so it’s going back to make sense of the past. Sunday’s show drew most heavily from There’s Nothing Wrong and Ultimate Alternative Wavers, the band’s 1993 C/Z debut, taking only the single, “Carry the Zero,” and the rock-cliche-quoting critics’ fave “You Were Right” from last year’s Keep It Like a Secret, the most recent studio LP.
Though the set and the songs were, by band standards, pretty short, the proof of the pudding is in the jamming, and the only selection from Perfect, “Untrustable/Part 2 (About Someone Else)” was a nine-minute examination of the band’s extended crystalline architectures. The song was built from the ground up, starting with Plouf. His stickwork is about not power or speed, but placement and texture. Sparing the rolls and fills on his small kit, he isn’t showy, but everything is exactly where it should be as the band shifts between precisely pitched off-kilter beats. The rhythm is stiffer than swing, more metaphysical than groove. (You did realize this is an art-rock band, right?)
The song started in a hypnotic 6/8, with accents on the 1, between the 2 and the 3, and on the 4 and the 6; then it switched to 4/4, with accents on the 1 and the 3—a frontbeat to rock’s usual backbeat. Then a march, with two quarters on the tom followed by four eighths on the snare. Then tom and kick on the 1, 2, 3, 4, and back to the 1 and the 3, before ending on a heavy 1, 2, 3, 4 with snare, tom, and kick. The drums were way up in the mix, Nelson’s bass down. As he often does, Martsch nailed down the ends of vocal lines with downward glissandi as much as with rhymes. Martsch and Roth tied things together with spidery leads and steady-state strumming.
Whether Martsch was heading for the top of the neck and a little wang-bar birdsong while Roth hewed to the iconography of his SG and laid down some barre chords, or Roth went swoopy with the slide as Martsch tacked his songs together with slow trills, they never competed; there was no cock-rocking gamesmanship going on. They did, however, once venture to the land of the leather codpiece under the aegis of the blues-based solo, a rarity for BtS, when Martsch took on Ozzy Osbourne’s “Mr. Crowley” midset and Roth attempted to snatch the song from the classically trained fingertips of Randy Rhoads.
When Oz penned “Crowley”‘s lyrics, he was apparently still waiting for that help with his mind he requested back in “Paranoid”: Cap’n Bat-Chomp actually takes the noted Satanist to task for his “lifestyle” (deemed “tragic,” to rhyme with “magic”). An inveterate triplet-sprinkler, Maestro Rhoads didn’t help things much. He may have been vying with Eddie Van Halen for the Stanley Cup of the hockey-stick guitar league, but he had way more chops than taste and couldn’t decide whether he’d rather be in Motorhead or R.E.O. Speedwagon.
What “Mr. Crowley” had going for it was a monster melody well-suited to limited voices that sound best under strain, like Ozzy’s and Martsch’s and—yeah, I can imagine it—Neil Young’s. Young plays the role of head cover boy on Live, having penned “Cortez the Killer,” which Built to Spill takes for an at times languid but never lazy or diffuse 20-minute ride. The original is a masterpiece of addlepated mid-’70s white-boy noble-savage-lovin’ romanticism. Is it necessary to respectfully identify human sacrifice with the Aztec back-to-nature vibe? And “the women all were beautiful”—really? If my late-night infomercial-viewing counts for anything, the Egyptians and the Nubians had far superior cosmetics.
Martsch sees more than the opportunity for one-upmanship in his choice of covers. Sure, he doesn’t object to bettering songs widely lauded by their fans, but he also twists the tunes to his own ends by mitigating the hubris of their writers. After all, he’s a guitar hero who thinks we’re better off without heroics. “Crowley” and “Cortez” are fever dreams that nearly get splashed awake by their authors’ narcissism. Ozzy mocks Crowley’s spiritualism before asking for a little beyond-the-grave assistance of his own. Seems he’s hung up on some difficult reading. (Are his best songs always appeals for aid?) For his part, Young reveals that the conquest he cares most about is his failed campaign for his lady love. Built to Spill unironically redeems both songs, bringing them down to earth and tugging them back from the brink of ridiculousness without diminishing their incantatory power.
Martsch uses the covers to put his own tone poems into cultural and temperamental perspective. Rock has long thrived on excess, but now we’ve seen so many poses that we no longer believe most of them. Built to Spill lives and dies by the balance it has struck between grandeur and humility. The diffident, laconic Martsch, honest but never simple, finds that the only epics you can trust are those you put together at home and unfold in your head. CP