Built to Spill returned to their home-away-from-home last week, playing a two-night stand at the Wonder Ballroom in Portland. We caught the band on the second night as they were finishing up their tour in support of their most recent album, the excellent Untethered Moon. If the band felt weary after months on the road, they certainly did not show it on Thursday night, as the group played an energetic set that covered just about every part of their vast catalog, including a couple of surprise additions as well.
Outside the Wonder, with that late Oregon summer sunset.
The show got off to a raucous start with Keep It Like A Secret opener “The Plan”, with the crowd immediately going nuts as soon as the opening chords were strummed. We were lucky enough to have a great view of the full band, and were able to enjoy seeing guitarist Jim Roth’s dissonant slide-work create the song’s memorable solo. From then on the band mixed in new material with old classics, and the crowd greeted the recent stuff with nearly the same approval as their favorites; singles “Living Zoo” and “Never Be The Same” featured some of the group’s catchiest hooks, and “So” has the spirit of many of the band’s brilliant guitar work-outs, so they were natural fits into the group’s standard set.
The band were able to seamlessly shift between different moods and tempos, such as when the group followed the mid-tempo ballad “Liar” with the raging “Pat”. It would not be a Built to Spill show without a couple of covers thrown into the mix, and the group obliged by including “Virginia Reel Around the Fountain” (a song that I keep forgetting is a cover because of its many appearances in a BTS show, from a side project that Doug Martsch did with Calvin Johnson of Beat Happening called The Halo Benders) and part of “Orion”, which took a few minutes for me to place since they started it off at about the halfway point. The band finished off the night with a rousing encore, first with the epic “Kicked It In The Sun” before rounding it out with early year favorites “Big Dipper” and “Stab”.
Doug Martsch and co. engaging in some guitar heroics
Opener Honey Bucket did a good enough job keeping the early crowd entertained with their take on garage rock, and Genders was a solid second act. Their first song reminded me of post-punk revival in the vein of Interpol, especially with the way their bassist was making full use of the neck for counter-melodies, but the highlight for most of the crowd was their faithful cover of Mazzy Star’s classic “Fade Into You” (even if the guitarist decided that the song’s memorable leads could be mimicked without the use of a slide). It was an intriguing counterbalance to the headlining act, but it is hard to overshadow Built to Spill when they are on top of their game. The sound mix overall was excellent, with all three guitar parts balanced perfectly, and the group actually integrated a fairly effective light show into their set. Overall, it was hard to find a better way to spend twenty dollars on a weeknight.
For a number of years, Built to Spill has been afflicted with the same curse as Spoon: consistent quality. Like Spoon, who have released a string of exceptional albums since 2001’s Girls Can Tell, over the last decade-and-a-half Built to Spill have steadily produced a series of very good records since the one-two punch of the classics Perfect From Now On and Keep It Like a Secret made them heroes of the indie rock scene. Both groups have a dedicated fanbase that has passionately welcomed each new release, but to some extent critics have begun to take the quality of the work they produce for granted. At this point, excellence is to be expected.
Considering the circumstances, it is remarkable not only how comfortable and laid-back Untethered Moon is, but how neatly it fits within the band’s catalog. In the six years since the release of There Is No Enemy, not only did Doug Martsch scrap an entire album, but longtime members Brett Nelson (bass) and Scott Plouf (drums) left the band. Though it took some time for replacements Jason Albertini and Steve Gere to get acclimated to the group in their live performances, the transition is seamless on the album. It is still true that the most important components of a Built to Spill song are Doug Martsch’s guitar parts followed by his trademark vocals, but the new rhythm section has seemingly injected some verve into the songs and rejuvenated Martsch to an extent, even if relatively few of their individual contributions stand out (the drum fills on opener “All Our Songs” and the bass melodies on “Never Be the Same” serving as notable exceptions).
What is most surprising about Untethered Moon is how restrained the guitar-playing is for the majority of the album. Doug Martsch established himself as one of the Guitar Gods of the alternative scene because of his mastery of each fundamental part of the instrument; not only could Martsch rip out a brilliant and searing lead or create a catchy and memorable riff, but he also was able to precisely construct multiple-part epics that not only perfectly integrated those leads and riffs but managed to surprise listeners with their originality. Consider how easily classics like “Carry the Zero” or “Kicked It In the Sun” shift between seemingly disparate sections that are nonetheless tied together by Martsch’s inventive songwriting, and how seamlessly Martsch blended multiple interweaving guitar parts. There are only a few scattered moments that recall Martsch’s previous guitar heroics; instead it is a few select riffs or the occasional quick melody that leaves an impression on the listener. With its tight, concise songwriting and the relative rawness of its fidelity, the closest analogue in the band’s discography is There’s Nothing Wrong With Love from just over two decades ago. It is not as if the band has come full-circle though; they are just digging deeper into their repertoire for inspiration.
Untethered Moon lacks a memorable single like the ferocious live staple “Goin’ Against Your Mind” or a cathartic hidden gem like “Things Fall Apart” that are definite standouts, but instead has several strong tracks that will compete to be designated as the listener’s favorite. When the band hits the road in support of the album, fans should look forward to hearing the band incorporate the new material into their live sets without a hitch, though the particular songs chosen may be a surprise. Untethered Moon proves that Built to Spill is a well-oiled machine that keeps chugging along, replacing and assimilating new components without any problems whatsoever, and able to continue to produce quality albums well into their career.