At the risk of stating the obvious at the beginning of this meditation on one of the major-label world’s greatest/most inexplicable success cases (Flaming Lips, we’re also looking in your direction), the guitar has always been the backbone of rock ‘n’ roll. Elvis Presley’s hip swagger and testostervox made the ladies swoon, and Little Richard’s unhinged piano thumping was topped only by his flamboyant reputation. But when you boil it all down and point your finger at the true reason people get off on rock music, you’ll find your index nail stuck firmly in front of that certain six-stringed instrument.
Doug Martsch and his band of revered Idahoan rockers understand this principle and lay their modus operandi out for all to see on “Goin’ Against Your Mind,” the lead-off track of You in Reverse, their sixth album (and first in five years). For a full two minutes, vocals seem inconsequential. Instruments overlap each other in a surprisingly tight arrangement, and the whole thing is held down by a taut drum beat, but it’s led by guitars that resonate like an alarm signaling an all-too-early morning. As far as fuzzed-out bliss is concerned, it doesn’t get much better than this. And the result is an epic, nearly nine-minute opener.
And although it would be a tad hyperbolic to compare You in Reverse to some of rock music’s greatest guitar albums, Martsch and company’s legend was intimidating even before the oughts, and this album only cements that. A band known for twenty-minute live versions of “Cortez the Killer” and un-ironic renditions of “Freebird,” Built to Spill’s latest finds the trio reveling in guitar-centric pieces while avoiding the tedium that could easily come with this sort of focused songwriting. Indeed, much like Television’s Marquee Moon, Dinosaur Jr.‘s You’re Living All Over Me, or, to go ahead and push the comparison over the top, Pelican’s The Fire in Our Throats Will Beckon the Thaw, Built to Spill has managed to elevate rock’s pre-eminent instrument to a pedestal while creating something that’s both approachable and timeless.
Which brings us to the accessibility of You in Reverse. Although more than two-thirds of the record’s songs top the five-minute mark, never do the tracks inspire boredom, never are there solos for the sake of indulgence. Rather, Martsch’s Brock-meets-Gibbard-meets-Young-meets-etc. vocals emit gorgeously plaintive melodies, even if they do get pushed to the back at times in favor of a musical breakdown. On “Saturday,” he sings, “And there’s nothing you can do/ and there’s nothing you can say/ to make my problems/ go away.” Out of context, these words come off as emo-tastic, but they make perfect sense within a churning composition that combines with follow-up track “Wherever You Go” in an inseparable way (a la “We Will Rock You”/”We are the Champions”).
In fact, classic-rock lovers and those stuck in nostalgic rock ruts would do well to check out You in Reverse. Like a growing number of bands today, the members of Built to Spill feel comfortable in their respect of ’70s bands while managing to avoid letting this influence mire them in any particular sound. Which is to say that these guys respect their elders while crafting something lengthy and at times transcendently original. Call them indulgent if you must, but the fun you can hear them having as they play translates to the record. There is a reason there aren’t any national air-piano competitions, after all.
Built to Spill Jams