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Built To Spill

+ {Doug Martsch}

Likened to PAVEMENT or DINOSAUR JR., Doug Martsch’s BUILT TO SPILL were poised to become indie-rock’s next big thing when they signed a lucrative contract at Warner Brothers. Fast-forward two decades and without losing much ethos or street-cred, there were signs that the group were once again filtering into the psyche of their intrepid fanbase.
Songwriter-in-chief “Dug” Martsch (born 1969, Twin Falls, Idaho) jumped from TREEPEOPLE to branch out in his Boise-based BUILT TO SPILL, roping in bassist Brett Nelson and drummer Ralf Youtz to heighten 1993’s ULTIMATE ALTERNATIVE WAVERS {*7}. Cut at C/Z Records around the same time as his previous combo’s “Just Kidding”, the grooves involved were improv and off-kilter, Dug’s mournful post-grunge fitting hand-in-glove on the eponymous title, `Nowhere Nothin’ Fuckup’ and the SONIC YOUTH-esque `The First Song’.
To distance himself from previous alliances, and on the strength of three low-key indie 45s (`Car’, `So And So So And So From Wherever Wherever’ and `Joyride’) – with Andy Capps on drums – Martsch duly signed to Seattle’s Up Records (City Slang in Europe/UK). 1994’s THERE’S NOTHING WRONG WITH LOVE {*8} follow-up was released with the assistance of Phil Ek, a producer/engineer who also contributed guidance, etc. A beguiling blend of strident, largely acoustic guitar and strings, engendered enough underground support to see BTS secure a series of dates on the subsequent Lollapalooza tour (by which point the band’s ever varying line-up consisted of Martsch, James Bertram (bass) and Dave Schneider (drums), plus cellist John McMahon); a prestigious support slot to the FOO FIGHTERS helped them no end.
Meanwhile, Martsch had enough spare time to engage in another project, The HALO BENDERS. Sparked up after a brief session with BEAT HAPPENING’s leader Calvin Johnson led to further activity alongside old pals act Ralf Youtz and ex-TREEPEOPLE’s Wayne Rhino Flower (bass), the first of three sets, `God Don’t Make No Junk’ (1994) on K Records; the other two were `Don’t Tell Me Now’ (1996) and `The Rebels Not In’ (1998).
In the ensuing A&R melee, Warner Brothers won the day for Martch’s signature and bundled his group off to the studio to what turned out to be a jinxed third album. Initially working only with drummer Peter Lansdowne, this sparse concept was slowly dissipated when Brett Nelson and ex-SPINANES drummer Scott Plouf were roped into the sessions. Once again there was a bona fide
band, but then damage to some master tapes forced the trio to virtually begin from scratch. Warners nearly bailed out at this point, although the album eventually surfaced in the form of the appropriately-titled PERFECT FROM NOW ON (1997) {*9}. Embellished by the cello of McMahon, the mellotron of Robert Roth and other guest Brett Netson (yes, Netson, on guitar), the album was met with glowing praise from the press, Martsch no doubt breathing a sigh of relief to see songs such as `Velvet Waltz’, `Randy Described Eternity’ and the culminant `Untrustable/Part 2 (About Someone Else)’ reach their goal.
BUILT TO SPILL streamlined their approach from their previous effort (all but the 8-minute curtain closer `Broken Chairs’) on their classiest effort yet, KEEP IT LIKE A SECRET (1999) {*9}, a record that garnered a mid-table high spot of #120 in the Billboard charts. Kicking out the jams for the gluey twists of `The Plan’, `Center Of The Universe’, `Carry The Zero’, `Sidewalk’, `Bad Light’, `Time Trap’, `Else’ et al, was this the album that consolidated Martsch and Co as more than just PAVEMENT pirates. Incidentally, QUASI’s Sam Coomes was enrolled into the fold as guest artist keyboard player.
In places, sounding more JANE’S ADDICTION than PAVEMENT, the customary double LIVE (2000) {*7} was an excellent insight to what the trio could do outside the confines of a studio. Underlining their ability to jam with the best of them, a majestic 20-minute take of NEIL YOUNG & CRAZY HORSE’s `Cortez The Killer’ proved that Martsch was still a fan of the man, while 19 minutes was afforded to `Broken Chairs’; the other outsider highlights came by way of LOVE AS LAUGHTER’s `Singing Sores Make Perfect Swords’ and The HALO BENDERS’ `Virginia Reel Around The Fountain’. Recent B-sides had saw them cover HEAVENLY’s `By The Way’ and JAD FAIR & DANIEL JOHNSTON’s `Some Things Last A Long Time’.
2001’s Top 100 breaker ANCIENT MELODIES OF THE FUTURE {*7} expanded the trio’s credibility – but there were critics to their arena-rock-meets-jangle-pop peculiarities. While no one dare accuse them of slipping into R.E.M. or U2’s shoes, there were signs of swagger and sophistication; listeners can be judge and jury on best bits: `Trimmed And Burning’, `Happiness’, `The Host’ and the lovelorn end title `The Weather’.
Endowed by the coolest whine since STEPHEN MALKMUS and/or NEIL YOUNG (many could also say DANIEL JOHNSTON), DOUG MARTSCH integrated Delta blues into his indie motif for the solo NOW YOU KNOW (2002) {*7}. With only the aforementioned McMahon as back-up, the multi-instrumentalist swept away the cobwebs to reintroduce MISSISSIPPI FRED McDOWELL’s `Woke Up This Morning (With My Mind On Jesus)’. Another feather to his boa, Doug stripped back the years to play telling slide guitar on his own compositions, `Gone’, `Window’, `Lift’ and `Sleeve’.
Long time no see, BUILT TO SPILL were cementing the pores of their once-proud indie credentials again on 2006’s YOU IN REVERSE {*8}. Martsch, Plouf, Nelson and Jim Roth made up the core of the quartet, while there was room once more for guitarist Netson and organist Coomes; not forgetting co-engineer/mixer Steven Wray Lobdell. A bit of everything (midtempo or sombre balladry to alt-guitar-rock), the Top 75 set pressed play or the rewind button to conjure up a bits and pieces of grunge (for the DINOSAUR JR-ish `Conventional Wisdom’ or The WIPERS-ish `Mess With Time’), plus his solo vaults for a re-working of `Gone’. In true “unconventional wisdom”, the opening 8:45 minutes of `Goin’ Against Your Mind’ was, in a word, awesome.
Never under any pressure to swamp the mainstream with a quantity of albums, BUILT TO SPILL chose the quality factor for the Top 50 THERE IS NO ENEMY (2009) {*7}. As always lyrically astute and head and shoulders over many of his alt-rock contemporaries, Martsch just displayed his usual steadfast rock balladry or jam-busting guitar hooks; filling a gap for fans of both FLAMING LIPS and NEIL YOUNG – if the timing was right. The simplicity of `Hindsight’ and `Nowhere Lullaby’ were somewhat swamped by the narrative shadows of `Life’s A Dream’ and `Good Ol’ Boredom’.
After contributing a cover of The SMITHS’ `Reel Around The Fountain’ to a tribute set, the perils of intricate recording schedules left Plouf and Nelson to off-load baggage at the departure gate; the latter had just been given the green light to release a Martsch-endorsed mini-CD as The Electronic Anthology Project. In their place arrived former roadie Jason Albertini (bass) and Steven Gere (drums), while Netson and Roth made up the quintet that delivered UNTETHERED MOON (2015) {*7}.
The longest BTS fans had ever had to wait (nigh on 6 years), the Martsch/Coomes-produced set was Chapter 8 of the stalwart saga of feverish front-porch alt-rock; no one could rightly call them an indie band since the mid-90s. The trenchant lines had been drawn many times before, but in this set Martsch’s lyricist wife Karena (sister to Ralf Youtz) was given co-credit on every one of the 10 cuts. The very retro-tastic `Living Zoo’ (recalling INSPIRAL CARPETS’ `She Comes In The Fall’), the sprawling `When I’m Blind’ and the jangly `On Our Way’ confirmed without doubt that BUILT TO SPILL were not yet built to spoil.
Suggesting Martsch and Co had run their course whilst spending a few gigs, in 2018, backing DANIEL JOHNSTON, the death of the said indie icon a year on, led into BTS’s next project. The Warner Brothers alliance had fizzled out, so, with bassist Melanie Radford and drummer Teresa Esguerra, summer 2020 saw the inaugural trio’s release for Earnest Jenning Records: BUILT TO SPILL plays the songs of DANIEL JOHNSTON {*7}.
In truth, there was no other wistfully in-tune singer to take over the role of the “Caspar” man than Martsch, and in the innocent and simplistic nature of `Bloody Rainbow’, `Honey I Sure Miss You’, `Life In Vain’, `Mountain Top’, the short-n-sweet `Good Morning You’, the sentimental `Queenie The Dog’ and the grunge-lite `Fake Records Of Rock & Roll’, one could sense that the DJ was in the room, somewhere, looking over the trio’s shoulders.
© MC Strong 1997-2003/GRD // rev-up MCS May2015-Jun2020

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