Andrew Bird performs at the Levi's Presents Benefit Braddock concert on November 10th, 2011. The concert series was held in support of Braddock, Pennsylvania, at the town's Carnegie Library.
Built To Spill is the brainchild of Boise, Idaho's Doug Martsch, who is just as comfortable writing cute love songs in his basement as cranking up his amps and fronting indie-rock's version of Crazy Horse. His trademark shimmering guitars and dreamy melodies captivated underground pop fans and nascent music bloggers alike in the mid-Nineties, and while the buzz has diminished, Martsch has kept producing on his own schedule, keeping Built To Spill relevant into the early 2010s.
Martsch, a veteran of Boise-area group Treepeople, started Built To Spill in 1992 with guitarist Brett Netson and drummer Ralf Youtz, but band membership has been a revolving door since then, with Martsch the only constant. The band's 1993 full-length debut, Ultimate Alternative Wavers, is generally considered its least representative record, with a handful of stellar moments (see: the noisy catharsis of "Revolution" and "Nowhere Nothin' Fuckup") but much rawer than what would follow.
More restrained and focused, There's Nothing Wrong with Love (1994) included lighter songs that were ready made for college radio ("Big Dipper," "Car") and helped give the band a following beyond the Pacific Northwest. For the 12-song set, Martsch enlisted drummer Andy Capps and bassist/guitarist Brett Nelson, as well as producer/engineer Phil Ek, who would produce the group's next four records. As always, Martsch shows off his guitar chops ("Some," "Stab") but the album's most affecting moments are quieter ones; the wayward backing vocals and slide guitar on "Cleo" lend extra charm to the lyrics, sung from the perspective of Martsch's then-newborn son. Also in 1994, Martsch formed side project the Halo Benders with Beat Happening frontman and K Records honcho Calvin Johnson, and released the first of the group's three K albums, God Don't Make No Junk.
Warner Bros. won a major-label race to sign Built To Spill in 1995 after the success of Love, although two throwaway indie releases followed. Up Records put out a rambling 1995 EP cut with the help of another Boise band, Caustic Resin, and in early 1996, K Records put out The Normal Years, a collection of rarities and outtakes.
Armed with Warner's studio production budget, Martsch recruited Nelson and ex-Spinanes drummer Scott Plouf in 1996 to record (and re-record after initial master tapes were damaged) a more expansive set of guitar-oriented songs he'd written. The result, Perfect From Now On is one of the band's best and most exemplary albums. Though Martsch didn't wholly abandon the pop sensibilities of Love, his focus turned more toward sonic textures and dynamic song construction. All but two of the album's eight songs run past the 6-minute mark, often shifting through multiple sections. "Stop the Show," for instance, starts with a slow, ominous, vaguely flamenco three-minute intro, morphs into loud, snotty rock, turns right on a jangle-and-chime hook, then cuts left for a gut-busting lead.
With a loyal indie rock following in hand, the group followed up with Keep It Like a Secret in 1999. While the record shows the band taking a more punchy, pop-oriented approach (see: "Sidewalk," ""Center of the Universe"), it does retain its predecessor's layered and intricate production values and, at moments, its jammy sound. Stand-out track "Carry the Zero," a mournful roller-coaster in the vein of Perfect From Now On, manages to hold both the catchy hooks and mesmerizing Martsch solo guitar work. Keep It Like A Secret was the first Built To Spill album to hit the Billboard sales charts, peaking at No. 120. The ensuing tour provided the material for the concert album Live
Follow-up Ancient Melodies of the Future (2001) marked a return to simplicity in Martsch's songwriting with warm production and guitar jams that sometimes hammered away at the same riff for several minutes. After Ancient Melodies came a large lull in Built To Spill's career. Martsch released a solo album on Warner Bros. in late 2002 (the tidy 11-track Now You Know emphasizes Martsch's acoustic slide playing, but leaves just enough room for a trademark wah-wah freakout on "Impossible"). But Built To Spill fans had to wait until 2006 until the next proper Built To Spill album, You In Reverse. By this point, the group was a quintet, with Nelson, Plouf, Netson and touring guitarist Jim Roth joining Martsch. Although the band was still on Warner Bros., Phil Ek was no longer employed and the result is much rawer than anything the band had released in over a decade.
The band toured in support of You In Reverse after Martsch recovered from surgery to repair a detached retina. The band also found time to write and record some new material in between the tours, and in July 2007 Warner Bros. released the reggae-tinged 12-inch single "They Got Away"/"Re-Arrange." For portions of the 2008 tour, the band played sets featuring Perfect From Now On in its entirety.
The band's seventh LP, There Is No Enemy arrived in October 2009, hitting No. 50 on and harkening back to Built To Spill's late-Nineties heyday with more elaborate production and soothing melodies. Patient ballads like "Done" and "Life's a Dream" revel in dreamy soundscapes, the latter surprisingly pairing trumpet bleats with the inevitable guitar solo to impressive results. The lyrical content is mostly depressing, nearly elegiac at times; even the buoyant rocker "Good Ol' Boredom" is an ode to emotionlessness — when caught up in the tragic side of life, "'not so bad' seems so great."