Built to Spill was originally intended as an ephemeral project with rotating membership and only retaining singer/writer Doug Martsch as the sole consistent member. Perfect from Now On is when this concept went out the window and the band solidified as a unit, five years into the formation of this particular constellation.
The album has a hazy, chill, Pacific Northwest vibe to it. While there are plenty of jam guitar solos, there is also a strong mellowing effect due to the inclusion of guest musician John McMahon’s cello. The billion-mile song structures give it an unhurried quality as well.
“Randy Describes Eternity” introduces us to the album. Subtle yet cathartic, it features lyrics that sound as if they were the product of a late-night marijuana session on a spaceship to Neptune, delivered beautifully over an atmospheric guitar figure that plays throughout the song. The lyrics complete a perfect introduction to the album: “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.”As the lyrics end, a two-and-a-half-minute instrumental jam, with wah-wah pedal and mellotron, orbits around the guitar and increases in velocity before fading into black.
“Kicked it in the Sun” is a melodic, soothing jam with Martsch’s tenor floating over the top. Gentle guitar chords and arpeggios herald the lyrics as intensity builds and releases throughout the song. Characteristic of BTS’s work, the song progresses in a more linear fashion, not relying on the circular verse/chorus structure but instead arcing forward in space-time. The song changes gears mid-song, snapping you to attention. BTS pulls off tempo changes so well that you barely feel the jolt, and throughout the album tempo changes break up longer movements into smaller chunks so that you’re never bored, even in a seven- or eight-minute song.
“Untrustable/About Someone Else” is another nine-minute epic that employs all of the BTS tricks. Movements flow seamlessly as drumming goes from lazy ride cymbal driven patterns to sharp, tiny-thunder pieces with bursts of guitars and bass. Instruments move in and out, sometimes left to bass and guitar with drums, then moving into cello and mellotron. The last two minutes are a punchy instrumental featuring a snare/crash combo throughout.
Much of this feels like the inspiration for Band of Horses, another folk/indie rock band from the Northwest. Classical music has long used non-linear structures with multiple instruments and tempo changes, and when you map that to rock you get bands like Built to Spill and Radiohead whose music doesn’t seem dated. After 20 years, the complexity of song structure, varied instrumentation and abrupt, expertly executed, changes mark a talented band with an eagle-eye for details.
BTS is a workhorse of a band that tours often, but due to its success, tickets can be elusive. The group comes to Portland annually, and the shows sell out in minutes. Built to Spill has never been a glitzy, buzz-prone band, so this fan devotion is purely due to musical prowess. This truly Northwestern band is understated, distant and introverted, but most of all its members are reportedly kind-hearted. It makes you want to hug their beards.
This is not headbanger music. This is much more heady, interesting and subtle, perfect background music for a conversation about philosophy or a promising third date. This is music that rewards focused listening and that can gently lull you to sleep, caressing you in your spacesuit as you attempt your first spacewalk into stars and meteors.