From Now On

Don't call it a comeback. Built to Spill's first album in five years and seventh overall, You in Reverse, does not represent an ending or a new beginning. Rather, it is an epochal testament to the band's collective coming of age.

Doug Martsch's expressive guitar work, like that of J Mascis, Thurston Moore and Neil Young before him, twists and turns through musical passages like a peregrination through the human psyche, where the bending of notes, distortion and feedback create alternative dimensions of reality. The near nine-minute opener, "Goin' Against Your Mind," explores spatial and temporal dynamics by expanding and building upon a simple, two-chord progression, while the frantic structural shifts in "Mess With Time" conjure a struggle to control chaos.

Solemn balladry based largely on Martsch's paradoxical lyricism, which challenges standard notions and existing trains of thought, is the pendulous force that grounds the band's explosive sound. Yet it is his attention to meter and rhythmic schemes that ultimately create the dream-like transcendence of his reverb-drenched vocals, allowing the music to work its way into you. In "Liar," he sings: "When things are all you think of/And plans are all you make/And thoughts are all you dream of/And falls are all you take/Look out, the world's destroyin' ya." The end result is balanced, epically proportioned songs such as "Conventional Wisdom" and "Wherever You Go" that mirror the band's musical maturation.

"After touring for Ancient Melodies of the Future, we were a little burnt out so we took a brief hiatus," Martsch explains from his hotel in Washington, D.C. "When we finally got back together it was like we needed to figure out what we wanted to sound like. I'd say the album is an attempt to really define ourselves as a band...who we are now."

A lot has certainly changed for Built to Spill since Martsch left his Seattle-based punk band Treepeople to form the group in 1993. His original idea was actually supposed to feature a revolving door of musicians, "Just random people getting together to do things," Martsch says.

Instead, Built to Spill, as a somewhat consistent trio, released two independent albums, Ultimate Alternative Airwaves and There's Nothing Wrong With Love, whose off-kilter, sporadic pop was a breath of fresh air in the wake of post-grunge nostalgia. The group scored a major-label deal shortly after with Warner Bros. and capitalized on the opportunity with back-to-back near-perfect albums, Perfect From Now On and Keep It Like a Secret. Both were heralded for their extremely dense and dynamic pop structures comparable to that of the Beatles or Pavement. Due almost entirely to popular demand, the group released their only live album in 2000.

"They pretty much let us have complete creative control over the music and everything else," Martsch said of the group's ongoing, successful marriage to the company. "We choose when we tour and where we tour, pretty much everything about what we do."

Throughout, Martsch was involved in a number of side projects. He collaborated with K Records founder and Beat Happening singer Calvin Johnson under the alias of The Halo Benders. The two released three albums together, most notably 1998's The Rebels Not In. More recently, Martsch killed some of his downtime with the Boise Cover Band, whose seven-song hodgepodge Unoriginal Artist tackles "Ashes to Ashes" by David Bowie and The Pretenders' "Back on the Chain Gang," among others.

During the band's recent hiatus, Martsch also produced his first solo outing, Now You Know. Surprisingly, the effort, which was recorded over a two-year span in his hometown of Boise, Idaho, was rich in the Mississippi blues tradition. "It was just about exploring another style of songwriting," Martsch said. "I wanted to learn how to play the blues, that moody style of guitar. I wanted to play slide, but I didn't want to figure out other people's songs so I just started making up my own little licks. It was sort of a fluke that it actually got released."

Other changes affecting the band heading into the writing of You in Reverse was the integration of a fourth member, Jim Roth, a rhythm guitarist, which undoubtedly encouraged the more collaborative, organic final product. And it is their first album in more than a decade to not feature Phil Ek as producer. Ultimately, however, it was Martsch's own personal growth and reflections that made You in Reverse a monumental triumph.

Straggling gray hairs are slowly becoming more prominent in Martsch's lumberjack beard. The front man has carried the torch of indie guitar god for more than a decade now and has gracefully reached the point where turning it all the way up to 11 no longer sounds like an ideal solution to life's problems; there's an awareness and acknowledgment that less really can be more. "A lot of the way things sounded in the past was based on my insecurities, with my voice, with the guitar playing, with everything," Martsch admits. "On the older records there was never a spare moment; I was so worried that the listener might get bored.

"In the past I just liked to keep things busy. It's always been a conscious decision to hide a little bit of everything with all of these layers of things going on. Some people want music that's just packed, but I don't really like that anymore. On You in Reverse we're trying to sound like a group of people in a room together like those old classic records. I think we're almost there."

KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Austin Powell