Martsch seems like a German last name, doesn’t it? That would explain Doug Martsch and company — Built to Spill — picking up a new strain of efficiency. When Built to Spill guitarist Brett Netson finished up his opening set of long drawn-out songs of loopy guitar, xylophone and vaguely leftist lyrics, I figured I had plenty of time to duck out onto Santa Monica Avenue to have a smoke. Martsch didn’t seem like the type to get anything done in any hurry. This is a guy who spends most of his time in Idaho smoking pot and playing pick-up basketball games. Only occasionally does he get music down on record, which can mean years between new albums (for some reason his label, Warner Brothers, continues to entertain Martsch’s indie whims). And since Martsch is best known for his guitar heroics — he’s often heralded as this generation’s (insert guitar god here) — I was sure he would take a good amount of time tuning up his collection of axes.
But only a few puffs into that cancer stick I heard the sounds of “Car” rolling out of the doors of the Troubadour on June 28. I rushed back into the club, through nonchalant hipsters and a power-tripping bouncer, to catch Martsch finishing up his solo version of that emo-stoner anthem. Then the full band launched into “Goin’ Against Your Mind,” the first single off You in Reverse, Built to Spill’s first new full-length in five years.
From there on, it was a tight, surprisingly non-meandering set, culling material mostly from the new album. Martsch has been known to throw in some crazy covers, from his take on current pop hits (he did a hilariously excellent version of Macy Gray’s “I Try” at the opening of Seattle’s Experience Music Project in 2000) to rock standards (Neil Young’s “Cortez the Killer”), but there was none of that here. Somebody did yell out “Freebird,” of course (I once witnessed Martsch oblige a request for that in New Orleans, but that’s a pretty tame give-in in a city where most requests are along the line of “show your tits”), but Martsch must not have heard him.
Or maybe he did and just decided to plow through with the set he wanted to do. It was clear that Martsch felt free to play the songs he desired; this was, after all, the first night in a monumental five-night, sold-out stretch at the Troubadour. As with covers, Martsch avoided obvious favorites: no “The Plan,” “Carry the Zero,” “Stop the Show” or “Randy Describes Eternity.” And Martsch didn’t stretch songs to the lengths that he’s been known to before. Sure, he put in his fair share of triumphant solos, but none crept up near the quarter-hour mark, as the band is known to embark upon. (Such indulgences have earned Built to Spill some fans from the jam-band scene of Widespread Panic and Ratdog.)
A great addition to Built to Spill’s already engaging music were the visuals of Mike Scheer, who did the M.C. Escher-esque cover art for You in Reverse. As the band played, more of his drawings flickered across a plain white screen behind the performers. They were sometimes horrifying, sometimes hilarious and always mind-bending. For the encore, “Broken Chairs,” Scheer had completely reworked a children’s Lassie picture book, taking it in much more adult directions a la T.C. Boyle’s famous short story “Heart of a Champion.”
Maybe like his new album’s title, Martsch actually is somehow running his life in reverse. Because as he’s getting older, instead of getting musically flabby, he’s only getting more disciplined and direct. And better.
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