Built to Spill, There is No Enemy (2009, Warner Bros.)
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If Doug Martsch sang like Dave Grohl, Rivers Cuomo, or even Thom Yorke, Built to Spill would be huge, arena-packin’ gunslingers and rich bastards, to boot. In a parallel universe, Martsch might have killed Chris Martin in some combination one-on-one basketball game-cum-minor celebrity death match, ridding us of Coldplay and winning the hand of Gwyneth Paltrow, only to discard her upon hearing her Oprah-fied tips on beauty and spiritual wellness. Built to Spill might’ve then invaded some minor republic like Kalmykia, slaying its meager armed forces with nothing but the brute volume of their amplification and building a towering monument to the band’s undisputed leader, made entirely of reconstituted Fender and Gibson products and melted-down copies of Coldplay’s X&Y. The new nation’s national anthem would have been Neil Young’s “Love and Only Love”â€”a ten-minute distorted guitar manifesto, the kind King Doug loves and would insist upon being added to state radio playlists.
The Idaho-born Martsch, in other words, is a fucking god, but his reedy, nasally singing voiceâ€”a hallmark of every Built to Spill albumâ€”is the very thing that keeps his band from being the kind of international proggy juggernaut those cutie-pies in Muse currently are. Things are not bound to change with There Is No Enemy, good as it is, as Martsch’s elastic whine once again blends into the overall sound of the band, becoming, in effect, another instrumental layer you either grasp or you don’t. Even without many immediately discernible lyrics, though, the album’s songs still satisfy, displaying the full and mighty power of Built to Spill in all its parallel universe-shakin’ glory.
The syncopated strum that forms the main riff of “Aisle 13” gets the head nodding right from the get-go. “Every day something strange I can’t explain happens to me,” Martsch admits over the straightforward rhythm, and it’s hard to not acknowledge or sympathize. Things pick up a bit on the single (if such things exist anymore) “Hindsight,” which hints at conflicts, personal and otherwise, as the band threatens to fill the air with wonderful and varied sounds. You get the first hints of the layers of guitar you will hear throughout the recordâ€”five or six, that I can hear on my earbuds, which only means there are probably ten or 12.
I’m partial to “Good Ol’ Boredom,” a poppy, up-tempo number where the guitars almost mimic a horn section. “Itâ€™s nice, but itâ€™s not that exciting / After all weâ€™ve been through,” Martsch sings, embracing the tedium of the moment, “Most of my dreams have come true.” The song features a deceptively simple solo, with distinct guitar riffs popping in and out, yet still making a distinctive whole. It might be a radio hit, if a) radio existed anymore, and b) anyone really cared about radio.
“Oh Yeah”‘s opening arpeggios and “ah-ah” vocals sound like a grand musical gesture is getting underway (I keep expecting to hear someone say, “Hewn into the living rock â€¦ ofÂ Stonehenge.” No dice, though). Martsch wastes little time in taking on the Big Questions: “And if God does exist,” he says, “I am sure he will forgive / Me for doubting / For heâ€™d see how unlikely / He still seems.” He does this right before he uncorks the first solo of the record that threatens to swallow the listener wholeâ€”a great beast of a thing that slinks away almost as quickly as it arrived, still yelling from afar before blasting back in.
Elsewhere, there are ballads that come off as almost soulful. “Nowhere Lullabye” is the first of these, and its slow burn is immediately unnerving. “Life’s a Dream” has Beatle-ish background vocal harmonies and a simple, melodic solo. And “Done”â€”a midtempo meditation on isolation, which convincingly portrays the slowness of time that accompanies solitudeâ€”features one of my favorite lines from the record: “Loneliness is getting hard to perceive / It seems that now it comes but it never leaves.” How do you reach the end of something, when you can’t figure out the difference between that end and the beginning?
It’s a question fit for a king, be it Solomon or Doug, a question partly answered by the dynamic eight-minute closer, “Tomorrow.” Like any decent epic, the subject matter here is life and death. The tempo starts slowly, exploring the space of the music until the band kicks up the volume and propels the song forward, only to scale back again, then speed up, etc. It’s a track that would do Neil Young proud, one that deserves a 20-minute in-concert version on some live album down the road.
It’s a track that could certainly serve as the national anthem for the coolest country in a parallel world, where a tall king from Idaho can rule with an iron fist and a loud guitar.
Listen to Built to Spill’s There is No Enemy in its entirety on the band’s MySpace page.