Returning with a new release after six years, Built To Spill’s eighth album Untethered Moon drops this week. The legendary band has inspired numerous Northwestern Sound bands in its wake and is adding to their noteworthy discography with this album, a mature and insightful recording.Former Treepeople guitarist and vocalist Doug Martsch formed Built to Spill in Boise, Idaho in 1992 with Brett Nelson and Ralf Youtz. The band has had many roster lineups since those days with Martsch the only permanent member. The current members of Built to Spill are Martsch on vocals and guitar, Jim Roth guitar, Steve Gore on drums and Jason Albertini on Bass. The album was produced by Martsch and Sam Coomes.
The band’s strength has always been its touring presence. They were signed to Warner Bros. in 1995 and retained a remarkable amount of creative control for a young and then unproven band. Their first major release in 1997 Perfect From Now On garnered them significant critic support and increased stature in the Indie Rock world. Their next album Keep It Like A Secret continued their ascent with critical kudos and significant commercial success.
In the post grunge era Built to Spill would influence a great number of bands in the Northwestern region of America. Multiple bands have cited them as major influences, The Ataris, Modest Mouse, The Strokes and Death Cab for Cutie to name a few. Isaac Brock and Ben Gibbard have both attested to the major influence Built to Spill had on their own bands’ development. All three bands, Built to Spill, Modest Mouse and Death Cab for Cutie have a long positive and lengthy association with the rock movement know as The Northwest Sound.
Built To Spill has always credited many bands for their own inspiration. Acts and performers such as Dinosaur jr, Neil Young, Pavement and Camper Van Beethoven are among the who’s who the band have cited as admiring and covered live. Built to Spill has always had directness and terse densely meaningful lyrics. Martsch has attempted to tell large emotional stories with an economy of words. He again succeeds on Untethered Moon.
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Untethered Moon returns to the straight forward style that had been missing from the last few releases. It makes for an enjoyable listen. The lyrics are heavyweight but the guitars are always energetic and ebullient. The first track All Our Songs has a kicky percussion with a great vibrant guitar. It is a showcase of instrumental mastery and lyrical gold, and sounds effortless. You can see clearly how the band would inspire Modest Mouse. Living Zoo draws you into a flawless framework of altie goodness, it is catchy as hell with this amazing oscillating beat and strong guitar riffs. A combo platter of The Byrds and REM that never feels forced. Do not miss the guitar tiger roar at the end of the song. The song itself draws parallels between the cages we place animals in and the cages we impose on ourselves. “Being a human, being an animal too.”
On The Way is a folk tinged track that channels Neil Young. It is a delightful galactic trip to Mars and proffers the possible topics of discussion on the trip out. Lovely moaning guitars accompany this trip through interplanetary space.
Some Other Song is a heavier feeling song after the space out of On The Way. It reminded me of Modest Mouse’s “Neverending Math Equation”. Displaying ennui in a love song,”I don’t know how to never fall apart, please tell me how to never fall apart”. It is a somewhat melancholy discourse on romantic relationships. Note the great slide guitar that provides emotional depth to the song.
Never Be the Same is a classic no clutter alt rocker with jangly guitar and a hint of Creedence Clearwater Revival which makes for an enjoyable track. The engaging C.R.E.B. is a distinctive track on the album; it references Camp Response Element Binding Protein, the C.R.E.B. of the title. This substance is the building block for formation of memory and neuroplasticity in humans. The song discusses the fragility of human kind and our foibles. How the mere lack of the tiniest elements affects humans and mankind and that there are many unexplained mysteries out there, ‘Yeah God doesn’t know, Yeah I believe that is true’. A stand out song on the album.
Another Day is a driving dynamic song, taking its guidance from the punk grunge ethos of Husker Du. It is hook laden and has amazing guitar riffs. Horizon to Cliffs is surprisingly ballad like with an excellent e bow effect. It is a trippy brief track that hat tips to Dinosaur jr. sonically.
So is another stand out track. It is a grand jam session filled with chiming guitars. The lyrics bring into focus the pain of personal loss. The title is the world’s response to that suffering, with its shrug of the shoulders and response “So?” The lyrics point out that the world moves on without apology or pity for the pain of the individual. The sufferer is left to decide whether to wallow and be overwhelmed by misfortune or suck it up and move on. It is an amazing song and thought provoking in equal measure with its musical impact.
The final song When I’m Blind is an amalgam of REM guitar jangle with Dinosaur jr’s crackling guitar licks. It is apocalyptic lyrics over a guitar explosion. It is a song that is classic Built to Spill amidst a swirling jam of scintillating guitar cacophony, which is their wheelhouse and a magnificent end to the album.
It is a pleasure to see Built to Spill return from their hiatus with such a strong release. They have not lost any of their edge. The record displays why the band has been an extensive influence on many other great bands. Untethered Moon is a great gateway recording for those who have never experienced the band in the past. The recording seems so effortlessly wrought that it makes for an extremely enjoyable listen.