By Bree Davies
By Emerald O'Brien
By Gina Tron
By Jon Solomon
By Drew Ailes
By Courtney Harrell
By Kyra Scrimgeour
"Straightforward" is a rather modest way of describing Built to Spill's music. In some ways, Ancient Melodies of the Future picks up where the band left off with 1999's Keep It Like a Secret. But in other ways, Martsch and company -- drummer Scott Plouf and Brett Nelson on bass -- go out on limb after limb and experiment more than they have in the recent past. There are still plenty of songs with the trademark riffs and radio-friendly, if somewhat off-kilter, melodies one expects of Built to Spill. "Strange," the first song on the disc, opens with a cheerful, bright chord progression that is rendered muddy with viscous, bubbly distortion and the guitar's tone turned all the way down. It draws you in anyway with an instantly likable hook that echoes songs such as "The Plan," from Secret. Martsch has found a way to balance his savant-like pop sensibilities -- he somehow creates pop hooks within song structures that seem intransigent, stubborn and almost rude -- with his need to explore strange rhythms and chord progressions.
Martsch is still quite handy at producing fun but simple songs such as "Strange" or the aggressive yet goofy slide-guitar romp "Happiness," both of which seem to be perfect little packages destined to be launched like missiles of nourishment at quality-starved radio audiences. By doing so, Martsch gives himself permission to create slightly weirder, slightly more eclectic songs as well. The third song on the new disc, "In Your Mind," is based around a three-chord acoustic-guitar line, but that's where its simplicity ends. The rhythm is a hard-to-grasp time signature, in which each bar seems to end a little before it should. And the song is seeded with humorous references to the old-school classic rock that is clearly one of Martsch's influences. For instance, there are subtle lead-guitar riffs sprinkled throughout that are back-masked perfectly in the style of Hendrix's "Are You Experienced?" And there is a keyboard part at the end of each chorus that sounds as if it was lifted straight from the Stones' "2000 Light Years From Home." Though it all seems to be somewhat tongue in cheek, a playful swipe at, as much as a celebration of, overwrought psychedelia, these touches also seem to have been done with love.
For his part, Martsch says nothing is ever deliberate when it comes to making a Built to Spill record.
"It's all just messing around with guitar and stumbling across things," he says. "I've never sat and decided I was going to write a certain kind of song. Sometimes they change, and I totally forget what was good about it. Sometimes they change for the better or for the worse. Basically it's just trial and error. It's all very intuitive."
On Ancient Melodies, that intuitive process again featured Martsch in the primary role of songwriter. He has developed a bit of a reputation for changing his band's personnel early and often, but it's a claim that's wearing thin after four years and four records with Plouf and Nelson. "It's been the same lineup for all of the Warner Bros. records," he says. "The last record, Keep It Like a Secret, a lot of it was collaborative even. That's the only record I ever really did that way. It was fun to do. But then on this record I went back to the old way."
Despite well-placed fears that corporate ownership ruins anything worthwhile, Martsch has managed to sidestep that bugaboo as well. Since 1997, his relationship with Warner Bros. has been one of mutual respect, according to Martsch. He still gets to call the shots, and although the people he used to work with at Warner's aren't there anymore, he has found the corporate beast to be gentle, if impenetrable.
"It's been fine," he says. "They're real nice. I don't really know how many records we've sold. We're not making a lot of money for them, but I don't think we're losing any money for them either. I don't really know what that means, what they'll do with us. I don't know how they make those decisions, who makes them and how we look to those people or anything.
"I don't think anyone really knows -- it's such a strange entity. We sort of play it by ear."
Playing it by ear seems to have worked pretty well so far. The slow, steady rise of Built to Spill shows that there is another way of doing things that can work out just fine -- even in the vast chasm between the two coasts.