Despite their indie-punk roots, Built to Spill are your basic cornfed American power trio, representing Idaho with a host of tricks learned from classic-rock radio. Indeed, their finest song ever, “You Were Right,” on 1999’s Keep It Like a Secret, was composed of quotes from bygone heartland rockers such as Bob Seger, John Cougar and Kansas. Last year they put out a live album and called it Live, a good enough joke right there, but the punch line was a slow, slow, slow version of Neil Young’s “Cortez the Killer” that went on longer than the Aztec empire did. Doug Martsch sings and writes the songs, but the main attraction is always his guitar, which squalls and buzzes with raw emotion. On Ancient Melodies of the Future, he and longtime producer Phil Ek get the thick, heavy sound they prefer: big fat drums, anthemic guitars, synths, loads of overdubs, slow tempos, not much vocal projection, lyrics and melodies so modest they fade away into the ornate sound.
Ancient Melodies is the trimmest album Built to Spill have made since their 1994 breakthrough, There’s Nothing Wrong With Love. There are just ten songs, clocking in at just under forty minutes, with only “Alarmed” breaking the five-minute barrier. But that’s a plus, since Martsch has the typical classic-rock weakness for going on way too long. Here he keeps the focus on his guitar in stately power ballads like “Trimmed and Burning,” “In Your Mind” and the surprisingly bluesy “Happiness.” He peaks, though, with a pair of unexpectedly spare, delicately spacey acoustic love songs, “You Are” and “The Weather,” proving that he’s even more impressive when he lowers the volume. Like the Flaming Lips’ The Soft Bulletin or Mercury Rev’s Deserter’s Songs, Ancient Melodies of the Future shows how rock & rollers can aspire to old-school grandiosity without necessarily leaving their brains behind.