On the first song of his band's new album, right as Quasi dude Sam Coomes' cracked-ass organ rides drummer Scott Plouf's Bonham-heavy backbeat, Idaho native/electric guitar hero/probably cool dad Doug Martsch unwittingly nails the experience of seeing Built to Spill live and in person: "This strange plan is random at best/This strange, how much more can I take?" That's not really supposed to be a dis: I love Built to Spill, have ever since There's Nothing Wrong With Love, Martsch's gorgeous 1994 collection of muted chamber-pop ballads that convinced me Smashing Pumpkins maybe wasn't the best band ever. Ancient Melodies of the Future, the new one, is typically great, too, as full of wistful melody as any human being could possibly want (this side of S Club 7, I mean). Like the somehow-not-grizzled members of Superchunk, Martsch and his buddies have simply cracked the code for making fuzzy guitar rock that balances a mature need for cleanly articulated pop smarts with the youthful imperative that those smarts don't just sit around earning interest.
Yet for some reason that mastery of form becomes the albatross around Martsch's neck when he climbs onstage. And it's not because he can't replicate his records in front of screaming (OK, clapping) fans; I've seen him do it and do it well. But most often what seems to emerge is Martsch's impatience with playing the same series of three or four or seven minutes over and over again, night after night, city after city. You can't really blame him for that: Sugar Ray sticks to the records because it's got no choice, not because it appreciates the attention spans of 14-year-old girls clutching contraband in the shape of Mark McGrath's face. But the flip side of monotony, in this case, is monotony, which, frankly, is what becomes Martsch's tendency to jam after he's traded solos with the other guitar guy for 15 minutes. Seriously: A few years ago in Chicago they played two songs, in New York, a little later, maybe four. And you can tell by looking that Martsch is happy doing this, ecstatic at not having to squeeze what he loves--just massaging swells of joyful noise out of his guitar--into tiny slots between rounds of applause. Which, you know, is great. I'll just be at the back, wondering how much more I can take.