BTS's Martsch Comes In Like A Lion

Built to Spill's Perfect From Now On is a massive, sprawling,

beautiful rock album. On this, another early Great Album from 1997, Doug

Martsch, Built to Spill's singer, songwriter, guitar player, and vortex,

brings what he refers to as his "noodling"--his penchant for long,

exploratory guitar passages when terseness seems to be the unspoken Ground

Zero for current rock--to glorious new heights, reminding the listener in

more than one way of Martsch's affinity to Neil Young's harder edge. At

their best, with a ability to convey grand, and sometimes grandiose,

passages as if they were as natural as taking a breath, as logical as

taking the next step forward, both Martsch and Young use their guitar

vocabulary to convey extraordinary depth.

The album's first track, "Randy Described Eternity", is both the record's

best song and a hallmark of what's to come. Bringing the guitar/bass/drums

format to soaring heights, Martsch at once invokes mythological

themes--the song traces its roots back to both every thousand years and

eternity--with his climaxing guitar, which moves from rough edged chords

to sinewy solos, and simultaneously displays his well-worn angst, hoping

more than promising that he will be perfect from now on.

The comparisons between Young and Martsch do not end with their guitar

work. Both artists have an upper-register vocal range that, in a

less-skilled singer's hands, could sound nasal; Martsch, instead, manages

to evoke a plaintive, mourning tone that draws the listener into his

particular realm of faith in the face of a fucked-up world and a carefully

balanced hope perched on the tenuous edge of desperation. Loneliness and

the essential isolation of the human condition permeate Martsch's

lyrics:"No one wants to hear what you dreamt about / Unless you dreamt

about them" Martsch sings with his unflinching tendency for seeing the

truth behind the masks people wear in "Made Up Dreams".

As Perfect From Now On unfolds, it further draws the listener into

Martsch's lonely yet hopeful space. He seems on the verge of tears,

figuratively if not literally, and his music feels like the catharsis

Martsch needs to hold it all together. By the time the listener gets to

the album's second track, "I Would Hurt a Fly", it is almost impossible

not to identify with Martsch and his world-view; and, once again, his

feedback-drenched solos, which often stretch out over several minutes,

seem as much a part of the meaning of the song as the lyrics. As

frustration, helplessness, anger, and determination build simultaneously,

Martsch's solo feels more and more necessary, as if this is something he

needs to communicate in order to keep on keeping on.

Bassist Brett Nelson, drummer Scott Plouf, and second guitarist Brett

Netson, who have worked with Martsch in Built to Spill for several years,

and have perfected their ability to build heavy, molasses-thick vamps that

anchor Martsch's guitar pyrotechnics. By this time, BTS's rhythm section

have learned that their strength is in their consistency, and, aside from

Plouf's occasional flashy fills, Brett, Brett, and Scott mainly prove

their mettle by laying down a groove and sticking to it, avoiding the

impulse to accent Martsch's solos with their own variations. Indeed,

Martsch's solos can be so burning and complex in their own right that

anything more than a solid rhythm section would do nothing but detract

from the power of Martsch's message.

"Stop the Show", the album's third track, is also one of its most upbeat.

After beginning with a meandering, unhurried introduction (complete with

mournful cello lines), BTS breaks into a funked up, almost danceable beat,

the only track on the album that will have heads bopping and toes tapping.

Not that "Stop the Show" is really an upbeat track--one refrain is "You

dont care about anything," and stopping the show refers to the inevitable

complacency that comes with endless posturing: "After a while / it hurts

to smile..."

After several years of success with the indie-based UP Records, some

people wondered whether BTS's leap to Warner Brothers would change either

their sound or their outlook. They needn't have worried. Martsch, a

musician's musician, a man who has stated that he would be happy as long

as he could make music and spend time with his growing family, couldn't

make an insincere album if he tried to. While Warner may provide BTS with

the wider exposure that will bring them out of cult status and into the

mainstream rock world, the suits at Warner sure arent going to change

Martsch's approach to his music. While Perfect From Now On features

some extra instrumentation--pianos, cellos, mellotrons, and moogs--the

basic rock structure that BTS has always considered their meat and

potatoes stays the same, and the extra touches act as delicate shadings

not overpowering additions.

The second half of the album contains some songs that almost count as

ballads--the eight-minute plus "Velvet Waltz" foremost among them, but the

strength and visceral power at the core of Built to Spill remains the

never-ending frustration that are at the heart of Martsch's singing, his

lyricism, and his guitar-playing. (Indeed, one can easily feel the tone of

a Built to Spill song without understanding what Martsch is singing--his

ability to evoke emotions is that secure.)

Perfect From Now On is an early must-buy for 1997. And unlike great

bands that you want to keep a secret because you're afraid widespread

popularity will alter their sound, you need not have that fear with Built

to Spill. They know what they want to say, and they know how to say it

damned well, and nothing's going to change that.