The release of the new BUILT TO SPILL album, You in Reverse, sort of snuck up on me. It wasn't until I stumbled on a Tower Records email where the megastore was peddling autographed copies as part of their pre-sale for the record that I remembered the band had been working on new material. Half a decade has passed since the band's last album, Ancient Melodies of the Future, a somewhat patchy record with a few great songs peppered throughout.
After a well-received and somewhat obligatory Live album and a decent if somewhat lightweight solo record from frontman/songwriter Doug Martsch, it seemed like there might never be another Built to Spill record. I've interviewed Martsch two times and both times he gave me the impression that he was the kind of guy who only did things if and when he feels like doing them. Around the time of the Live record, we discussed the possibility of that being his last album for Warner Brothers (contractually, it was). He was totally unconcerned.
Well, at least I can fret no more. Warner Brothers is behind You in Reverse, and I'm glad to see they're doing what big record labels rarely do these days: supporting a band with mid-level record sales and letting them cultivate their own fanbase and following. (Of course, WB dropped that same ball with Wilco. Maybe they learned a lesson?) I like the new album a lot, especially album opener "Goin' Against Your Mind", an 8-minute guitar workout that recalls the band's earlier material.
I still need some time to listen to the new album, so I'd rather spend today's post telling you about the Built to Spill album that had a truly profound effect on me, Perfect From Now On. Perfect was actually the band's major label debut for Warner Brothers, and if you've heard it, you can only imagine the looks on the label honcho's face when he found out that this massive, dark record full of way-too-long-for-radio existential epics is where their money went. Even the band's indie debut, which featured similarly lengthy material, was full of fun and sarcasm (not to mention a few catchy ditties). Their second album, There's Nothing Wrong With Love found Martsch crafting intricate guitar-pop like "Big Dipper" and "Distopian Dream Girl". Great lyrics ("If it came down to your life or mine / I'd do the stupid thing / and let you keep on living"), hooks and quirky little guitar parts galore. . . these are hit songs, the strength of which sold Warner Brothers on Doug Martsch and company.
I wonder if they had any idea where Martsch was going to take things next. I certainly didn't, and neither did the friend of mine who told me how disappointed he was with Perfect. I trusted his judgment and avoided hearing the record myself for at least another year. I remember shopping at a Border's one night and deciding that I liked Built to Spill enough to gamble on buying the album.
It immediately hit me like a ton of bricks. I'm sure part of it was some sort of bizarre combination of time, place and emotional state, but Perfect From Now On was like this Rorschach inkblot of my entire life at that point. It spoke to every concern I was having, every shortcoming and every fear, and the music was as huge to me as the importance of figuring these problems out.
Right off the bat, after an ominous musical build-up, the opening verse of "Randy Described Eternity" has Martsch's title character trying to put the concept of eternity and infinity into some sort of tangible context. "Every thousand years / this metal sphere / ten times the size of Jupiter / floats just a few yards past the Earth / You climb on your roof / and take a swipe at it / With a single feather / hit it once every thousand years / 'til you've worn it down / to the size of a pea / Yeah, I'd say that's a long time / but it's only half a blink / in the place you're gonna be." This is serious business.
The second track, "I Would Hurt a Fly," digs even deeper as Martsch explores the darker side of human nature and the effect of the past on the future. "There's a mean bone in my body," Martsch warns as the band churns around his seemingly harmless voice. "It's connected to the problems that I won't take for an answer." The album's third track, "Stop the Show," seems (again, these are all my own interpretations) to examine who people are and who they present themselves as to everyone around them. Then you've got "Made Up Dreams." It's more lyrically vague, letting you fill in a lot of the blanks (but don't miss one of the best lyrics on the record: "No one wants to hear what you dreamt about, unless you dreamt about them").
It's at about this point in Perfect that the music becomes less ominous and more intricate and exploratory, almost as if the "narrator" is getting older and wiser as the record moves on. Put your headphones on and get a little lost in "Velvet Waltz." "You cold called everybody / but you haven't sold anything" is a great summation of how I felt after graduating from college and found myself in my first shitty job. If you love Neil Young and Crazy Horse, you're going to love the places this song goes in the last couple of minutes.
What follows after that is, in my opinion, one of the greatest album endings in the history of rock. The next three songs, "Out of Site," "Kicked it in the Sun," and "Untrustable," build to this amazingly majestic, almost empowering climax that feels to me like this unholy combination of the end of Kubrick's 2001 and The Beatles Abbey Road. The former for how the songs hint in some way at this larger of redemption and the latter for how things keep piling on top of each other until it's one big cacophonous, glorious explosion.
Obviously I can't give you that whole chunk (really, just go buy the album!), but for now check out the album's penultimate song, "Kicked it in the Sun". Like the other tracks making up the finale, this one actually seems like two or three songs stitched together. I love how the relaxed lounginess of the first half gives way to the second half through a lyric: "It's all right now, I'm getting over / Getting mine." The drums speed up and the the guitars tear into a new rhythm, as Martsch's "lead character" seems to begin some sort of process of acceptance or healing. "Despite his expectations, he turned out mediocre / His master plan was so-so / We're special in other ways / Ways our mothers appreciate." As I worked my first shitty job, I had time to contemplate the meaning behind "That net does not make me feel safe / All those holes make me nervous" and its relation to my discovery that the stability of having a job is an unpleasant compromise to living life like you thought it should be lived. After the company I worked for laid off the entire staff and gave us all a copy of this goddamned Golden Parachute book about landing on your feet, that whole "net" thing really seemed painfully apt.
The closing song, "Untrustable/Pt. 2 (For Someone Else," might be my favorite on the record, but it just didn't feel right posting that song here because it's THAT fucking good. The band deserves your dollar for what they pull off there. It's a great ending to a truly brilliant record. I still feel like Perfect From Now On is criminally underlooked, but maybe that's just because it meant so much to me at such a strange point in my life. It is Built to Spill's masterpiece, in every definition of the word. It's, dare I say, perfect.
A FEW BONUS TRACKS!!
"Big Mouth Strikes Again" (This is a Smiths cover from Doug Martsch's earlier band, TREEPEOPLE.)
"Someday" (Built to Spill have been known to do the occasional timely cover in their set, whether mourning George Harrison's death by playing "What is Life?" or covering a Macy Grey song that was topping the charts at the time. Here they pay homage to the Strokes.)
"Now & Then" (A b-side from another fantastic album in the Built to Spill canon, Keep it Like a Secret, which featured great stuff like "Carry the Zero".
There's no denying it -- I'm a child of the 1970s. I grew up in an era where rollerskating and mini-golf were almost a way of life. Back when video games were about 20 times the size of today's computers, with 1/100,000th of the memory capacity. A time when skateboards were just a little larger than the size of a large adult foot, and seatbelts in cars were a recommendation, not a requirement. Go ask your moms: people didn't have baby seats back then. . . they just laid their kids down in the back seat and hoped for the best.
While every era in music has its cheese, from the corny stuff in the '50s to the hippy-dippy shit in the 60s to the Candleboxian "grunge" of the '90s, I seem to have a soft spot for the 70s stuff. In my last post, when discussing Grand Funk Railroad, I mentioned my love for a certain brand of 70s semi-bloated funky rock. A few readers agreed, and one even jokingly told me to come up with a Grand Funk 100.
As I said then, I don't think I could come up with a Grand Funk 10. Like a good deal of the bands I'm posting tonight, I wouldn't even say I'm a fan. I will say that I believe that most bands can surprise you with one or two great songs. Obviously there are more exceptions to my rule than I'd like to admit, but sometimes I'm wary to laugh about a band that might seem cheesey because I know that there's the slightest chance that they could meet my Grand Funk Principle: even a shitty band can pull of a great song, if the moon is right.
The 70s produced a lot of bad music, don't get me wrong. I wouldn't even be afraid to say that some of tonight's music is, in some way, bad. I just don't care. This stuff isn't brain surgery. This is the 70s stuff that was custom made for a few specific activities. Drinking in your backyard. Lighting a shitload of fireworks. Watching, or participating in, a roller derby. Driving fast, especially in a Camaro.
So crack a beer, strap on your skates and hit Random on this playlist. Oh, and wear some sweet ass short shorts.
"Hey Big Brother"
"I Just Want to Celebrate" by RARE EARTH: I mentioned Rare Earth's "I Just Want to Celebrate" in my previous post, but I foolishly failed to post the song. I remember growing up liking this song, and then deciding it sucked after hearing it one too many car commercials. It was David O. Russell's film Three Kings which reminded me of how cool it was after being used in the movie's opening credits. Eventually I broke down and bought a Best Of Rare Earth CD, where I discovered "Hey Big Brother," which has all the elements of my 70s Porno-Rock fetish: funky heavy guitars, tons of multi-tracked backing vocals, and squiggly keyboards or organs.
"Rave 'n' Rock" by DADDY MAXFIELD: While this one is more T.REXian than the rest of tonight's playlist, it's still totally porno and totally 70s. I honestly couldn't make you a rollerskating jams tape without this song, which I discovered with the help of one of my favorite blogs, Bubblegum Machine. Check that super sweet guitar solo. More bands need to ape Marc Bolan. Anyone actually own a Daddy Maxfield album? I don't know a thing about the guy.
"You Could Have Been a Lady" by APRIL WINE: Now this is some corny 1970s shit! Even the band name, like NAZARETH or BLUE OYSTER CULT, reeks of the era's corniness. Still, it rocks. Clock that THIN LIZZY-style dual guitar solo in the middle of "Roller." I've been known to drop my vinyl copy of "You Could Have Been a Lady" into my DJ set, and not exclusively because I find it so hilariously Canadian for a Canadian band to use the word "lady" in a rock song.
"Me and Baby Brother" by WAR: While originally a collaborating (they were formerly called Nightshift)/vehicle for Eric Burdon, former vocalist for THE ANIMALS, War struck out on their own after Burdon quit the band, citing exhaustion. This track, from their 1973 album Deliver the Word is pretty much better than anything they did with Burdon, and yes, that includes "Spill the Wine."
"Mr. Blue Sky"
"Don't Bring Me Down" by ELECTRIC LIGHT ORCHESTRA: If forced to make a definitive statement on the matter, I'd have to say that "Don't Bring Me Down" might be my #1 Roller Skating Jam of All Time. Jeff Lynne, the king of overproduction, really goes all on that one, throwing in sythesizers, hand claps, and a wall of vocals. "Telephone Line" is riddled with melodrama, but it remains a favorite 70s ballad. It's like a great soul song that grew up in a disco but was born for a bowling alley. But when it comes to "Mr. Blue Sky," my tounge is decidedly OUT of cheek. It sounds like an outtake from a George Harrison record (Lynne would later produce one or two bad Harrison records). A little trivia for fans of 60s psychedelic rock: ELO formed from the remains of THE MOVE.
"Nothing is the Same"
"Sin's a Good Man's Brother" by GRAND FUNK RAILROAD: And now for the band that motivated this whole 70s post tonight. While Grand Funk (the Railroad was optional after their third album) was responsible for some truly awful clunkers like "We're An American Band" (yes, even as an Omahan who recognizes that the band namechecked them in a song) and their cover of "The Loco-Motion," they still prove they can tear you a new asshole in songs like "Nothing is the Same" (which De La Soul would sample years later on Buhloone Mind State). The epic "Sin's a Good Man's Brother" also appeared on the same album as "Nothing," and it's the template for all good cock rock. "Shinin' On" is from a few years later and was produced by Todd Rundgren. A little more trivia: Frank Zappa produced a Grand Funk record, and the Butthole Surfers named the band dog, which toured everywhere with them, "Mark Farner of Grand Funk Railroad."
(PHOTO: Christian Patterson)
No time for dicking around tonight, as I'm laying around completely lazy as I enjoy the last day of a 5-day "vacation." I have an entire DVD of Undeclared episodes to catch up on, so I'm bringing you a quickie post full of covers (and in some cases, the original versions as well).
"Band of Gold" by the AFGHAN WHIGS: Let's get one thing right out in the open: the Whigs' Greg Dulli can not sing. He can howl and purge his soul with the best of them, but when it comes to hitting the notes in the technical sense, he's Exene Cervenka. In any other band it never would have worked, but the Whigs have a penchant for atonality. Those wiry guitar lines and droning feedback are the band's calling card(s), and they've rarely been as powerful as here, deconstructing and choking the perkiness out of this hit from Freda Payne. Diana Ross (CORRECTION: a sharp reader noted that this is the Freda Payne version I've posted, not the Ross version. . . I must now hunt down the Ross version and post it here when I find it) is the spurned lover, but Dulli is the dude sprawled out on his kitchen floor, covered in self-inflicted slash wounds and stinking of whiskey, surrounded by the shattered remains of his telephone.
"After the Gold Rush" by THOM YORKE: This is a live track from Radiohead singer Thom Yorke's appearance at a 2002 benefit for Neil Young's Bridge School. I've heard Radiohead cover a Neil Young song before (there's a live version of their "Cinnamon Girl" floating out there on the web), but after hearing this song, I won't be satisfied until the band does a whole album of Young covers. While he botches a lyric here and there, Yorke really nails the cracked, longing vocals in Neil's original song. The Flaming Lips once recorded a cover of this one.
"What'd I Say" by RARE EARTH: Anyone who has ever seen me DJ in Omaha can tell you that I have a shameless love for a certain brand of groovy 70s cock rock. I've been known to bust out the odd April Wine or Grand Funk track here and there, and I'll even come to the defense of Rare Earth, who had a big hit with "I Just Want to Celebrate." On "What'd I Say," these guys get their honkey funk groove all over the Ray Charles classic, which is pretty damn scorching in its own right.
"Jumpin' Jack Flash" by ALEX CHILTON: Yes, this is the Alex Chilton the Replacements were singing about. This raggedy cover comes from 1970, an album full of sessions Chilton recorded after the demise of his BOX TOPS (they had a hit with "The Letter" in 1967) but before the arrival of BIG STAR (they. . . didn't really have a hit). The album is a bit spotty in places, but there are a few great songs in there. Stones purists may hate the change in rhythm. I don't mind it a bit.
"Thirteen" by WILCO: Tying together a number of tangents in one song, here Jeff Tweedy pays tribute to the aforementioned Big Star by covering a gorgeous little song from their debut album and possible masterpiece, #1 Record. It's hard to believe the original Big Star version is almost 35 years old. I've heard some people complain that the thought of two guys writing a song about being thirteen and in love skeeves them out, but I just have to ignore their cynicism and enjoy the song for perfectly capturing how awkward and emotionally raw those days were. The recently unearthed version of "Thirteen" by ELLIOTT SMITH mirrors the Wilco version, making things a little more somber and unsure.
"Be Your Husband" by JEFF BUCKLEY: This Nina Simone cover is the opening track to the newly augmented double disc version of Jeff Buckley's debut EP, Live at Sin-e, and it's a great way to start the album because it's basically Buckley's soundcheck (the annoying guy asking for reverb is not Jeff), as he feels out the room and the microphone. Without ever touching an instrument, he hits almost every little nuance in Simone's "Be My Husband", right down to the grunts.