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Built to Spill at the Paradise Rock Club

If only they were so animated at the concert

A few years ago I postulated that there are three potential favorite albums for Built to Spill fans, and each selection says something about your general musical taste. 1994’s There’s Nothing Wrong with Love is the logical choice for anyone leaning toward indie pop (which includes the majority of female Built to Spill fans I’ve met). The layered guitar epics of 1997’s Perfect From Now On are tailor-made for insular dudes like yours truly who prefer Doug Martsch as the new J. Mascis. Finally, 1999’s Keep It Like a Secret appeals to those searching for a middle ground between the earnest pop and the guitar heroism. While I have my obvious preference, they’re each highly recommended.

The rub for my theory is that Built to Spill has since recorded three more albums (and started out with Ultimate Alternative Wavers, but come on, don’t be a jerk). Is it possible that someone could choose Ancient Melodies of the Future as their favorite Built to Spill album? Certainly. Stranger things have happened. But if I start talking with someone and they reveal that Ancient Melodies is their favorite Built to Spill album, I may very well walk away before they continue to share their preferences for Pavement’s Terror Twilight, Polvo’s Shapes, and Seam’s The Pace Is Glacial. Unless that is the first (and possibly only) Built to Spill album they’ve heard, it is not a logical choice. You in Reverse and There Is No Enemy are improvements from Ancient Melodies, but I’m not going to wake up one day and prefer any of them to Perfect From Now On.

Here’s my million-dollar question: Which Built to Spill album is Doug Martsch’s favorite? It’s common practice for artists to say “The new album is our best!” because they’re so invested in the process. You can, however, tell how bands feel about their previous work in set lists, especially if they’re touring outside of the context of a just-released or upcoming album. Foals closed their show the night before with three songs from Antidotes. Pavement only played “Spit on a Stranger” from Terror Twilight when I saw them a few weeks back. Shiner almost always pulled out “Semper Fi” and “The Situationist.” Thursday’s Built to Spill show should have demonstrated a similar transparency for Martsch’s preferences on his own material, but I don’t know if I learned anything.

I didn’t write down their set list, but I can remember most of the early songs because I kept Googling them on my iPhone to confirm which of the last three albums they represented. “Traces” from You in Reverse started things off with some somber, mid-tempo guitar interplay. “Reasons” was instantly recognizable as a There’s Nothing Wrong with Love song, although not one of my favorites. The hummable yet slight “Strange” is, in fact, from Ancient Melodies. Martsch tipped off that the cover of Grateful Dead’s “Ripple” was a “non-original,” but its loping pace wasn’t far off from the rest of the set, especially the alt-country tinges of “Hindsight” from There Is No Enemy. “Twin Falls” was a welcome Love representative, short and sweet. “Else” broke the cherry for Keep It Like a Secret roughly 40 minutes into their set. By this point, the languid pace and questionable song selection kept my eyes glued to the running clock at the side of the stage.

There was a slight reward for my patience near the end of the set when “Time Trap” and “Carry the Zero” brought a very noticeable energy to both the band and the audience, but I couldn’t bring myself to stick around for the unearned encore. If I had, I would’ve seen “Car,” “Big Dipper,” and “Untrustable/Part 2 (About Someone Else)” (if this list is accurate). Damn? I left the Paradise knowing full well that Doug and company would bring some of his best songs out for the encore, but why make me wait? In a set low on energy, wouldn’t “Goin’ Against Your Mind” be an improvement on “Traces”? Wouldn’t “The Plan” give “Else” a jolt? Wouldn’t “Stop the Show” be welcome? Clearly there must be some reason for this mid-tempo snoozefest.

Here are my theories: 1. They saved the best songs for Friday’s second show at the Paradise. (Some of them, at least: “The Plan,” “Kicked It in the Sun,” even “The Weather.” Saturday’s show in Pawtucket looks like a dream, though.) 2. Doug Martsch likes all of his albums equally. 3. Touring without a new album feels too much like work. 4. Playing Perfect From Now On straight through on a tour two years ago took those songs out of rotation. 5. There isn’t much of a need to one-up the workmanlike indie rock of touring openers Revolt Revolt, friends from Boise. 6. His refusal to discuss his lyrics in interviews and instead only talk about the aesthetic choices or recording process implies a level of detachment from his most resonant material.

The sixth point (in particular) may sound harsh, but think about it: the issue with this show and Built to Spill’s last three albums is that Doug Martsch is that what makes the band great is being rationed. Martsch may be fine with that. It was easy to say what’s great about TNWWL, PFNO, and KILAS. The appeal of certain songs from the last three albums could be summarized so concisely, but none of them is consistently engaged both musically and lyrically.

Seeing streams of Chavez and Sonic Youth’s superb performances from Matador at 21 on Friday night put my disappointment with Built to Spill’s set into perspective. Chavez didn’t play “Wakeman’s Air”—perhaps my favorite of their songs—but every song they did play completely ruled. (Only having two LPs and an EP helps the selection process—sorry, “Little Twelvetoes” fans.) Sonic Youth made a more dramatic decision, playing only “Mote” and “Bull in the Heather” from their 1990s and 2000s albums, choosing instead to load up on classics from EVOL, Sister, and Daydream Nation, then close with “Death Valley ’69.” I could make a four-hour playlist of Sonic Youth songs I wouldn’t want to hear—most of their only Matador LP, The Eternal, for instance—but if I had to narrow them down to an hour-long block, their Friday set might very well have been it.

There’s a good reason why both Chavez and Sonic Youth killed on Friday night—it’s a hell of an occasion and any great band would best bring their a-game. Should I excuse Built to Spill for not having that occasion? That sense of occasion was present for the aforementioned Perfect From Now On coronation tour. They shared the bill with fellow legends in the Meat Puppets and Dinosaur Jr. They played PFNO, “Goin’ Against Your Mind,” and “Car.” I wanted to hear more, but I didn’t blame them for skipping “Carry the Zero.” This show, on the other hand, couldn’t end fast enough.

One final note: it’s even more baffling that this Built to Spill show was so staid when the band has just released a completely unexpected disc of synth-tastic versions of Built to Spill songs like “Goin’ Against Your Mind,” “Else,” and “I Would Hurt a Fly” under the pseudonym Electronic Anthology Project. I might have preferred seeing the band do a few of those versions!

The Haul: Labradford, Wrens, Wider, and Red Stars Theory

My prior experience with this In Your Ear location had not been great. The scourge of in-city overpricing is particularly apparent here, especially on the classic rock rarities they have hanging on the walls, and the selection usually feels tired. The title of their indie/imports section makes me think they haven’t re-examined it since the dying days of college rock. Plus, they have Philip Glass and Steve Reich filed alongside groups like Tangerine Dream and Cocteau Twins in a complete hodge-podge of experimental approaches. As much as I appreciate finding where Steve Reich resides in a record store without having to ask the clerk, I expect him to be in a contemporary composers section.

After flipping through their terrifyingly priced just-in bin and then seeing a used copy ofHüsker Dü’s Warehouse: Songs and Stories for $24.99 in the indie/imports section (I paid no more than $10 for it at Record Exchange in Salem and recall seeing it elsewhere for less a few months later), I debated giving up entirely. But finding two out-of-print Labradford LPs for genuinely reasonable prices reenergized me a bit. I dug through their bins $1 seven-inches, seeing quite a few familiar faces among the hordes of Boston rejects, and then skipped over to their CD dollar bin, which occupies a full corner of the store. If I had a few hours to kill, I would’ve scanned through every single disc there, hoping to find a dusty copy of Panel Donor’s Lobedom and Global, but my parking meter was running.

Side note: Putting a Goodwill two stores down from a used record store, which is also the case in Central Square in Cambridge, pretty much eliminates any chance you’ll find something good in the vinyl section of the Goodwill.

75. Labradford – Prazision LP 2LP – Flying Nun, 1996 (reissue) [1993] – $15

Labradford's Prazision LP

My only prior experience with Labradford came with their third album, 1996’s self-titled release. I picked it up during my obsessions with all things post-rock in the late 1990s, but my perceptions of the genre at the time were ill-suited to Labradford’s approach, so I just ended up baffled. Anyone expecting the crescendos of Mogwai, the tension and release of Slint, the jazzy shuffle of Tortoise, or the apocalyptic landscapes of Godspeed You! Black Emperor would be disappointed by the lack of those elements, or any other traditional structures. Had I been familiar with Talk Talk or Bark Psychosis at the time, perhaps I could’ve wrangled Labradford into that side of post-rock, but at most they’re half in that camp and half in the ambient arena with Kranky peers like Stars of the Lid and Windy & Carl. Labradford drifts between humming organs, reverberating guitar chords, mumbled vocals, and pure drones with scant amounts of forward momentum (“Pico,” “Lake Speed,” “Scenic Recovery,” and “Battered” moreso than the drone-heavy side A), but a larger sense of melody and slow-burning emotional resonance. Returning to Labradford now illuminates an album I’d largely dismissed a decade ago.

Labradford had certainly evolved to that stage over their first two records, which show nascent tendencies that were gladly discarded in a few years. Prazision LP, the very first Kranky Records release from 1993, shuffles between dark drones and skeletal vocal tracks like “Accelerating on a Smoother Road.” Picture a ghostly version of Spacemen 3 haunting a New England cottage, wondering where their drum kit is. Standouts include the lulling melodies of “Soft Return,” the icy vocals of “C of People,” and “Everlast,” which closes out the record with some crests of guitar feedback. (Brainwashed informs me that it was their first single and not included on the original Kranky pressing of the album.) “Gratitute” is a strange tangent, a drone with a modulated voice listing the album’s thank-you list. It’s not representative of its surroundings, but it is indicative of a band trying different approaches as they forge ahead in a new style, hitting some stumbling blocks along the way. Not all of Prazision is captivating, but as the rural origins of their sound, it’s certainly intriguing.

76. Labradford – A Stable Reference LP – Kranky, 1995 – $10

Labradford's A Stable Reference

Labradford’s sophomore effort shows marked progress in their style, removing some of the debt to Spacemen 3’s minimalist drugged-out psych-rock and gaining a better sense of how to shape their amorphous songs. There are still a few drone-oriented pieces like “Mas,” “Eero,” and most of “Star City, Russia,” but the appearance of recognizable, reverb-heavy guitar lines makes an enormous difference. The interlocked synth, guitar, and bass in “Comfort” is their most indeliable concoction to date, made all the better by the absence of vocals. “SEDR 77” would be its match, if not for a skronking thread of feedback (I assume) that prevents me from drifting out with the down-beat atmosphere. (Unrelated anecdote: The last time I saw Centaur in Champaign [now roughly four years ago], they debuted a new song that featured a high-pitched loop throughout the entire track. I love Hum and all, but five minutes of a brain-splitting sound like that nearly drove me to murder.) There are plenty of comparably moments, however, like the emergence of the organ midway through “El Lago,” the glacial arpeggios of “Streamlining,” and the nearly optimistic melodic shifts in Banco.” I’ll reiterate how much better Labradford sound as an instrumental band; unlike Windy & Carl, when the vocals usually sift into the guitar drones, the mumbled vocals here rarely congeal properly. It’s a testament to their atmospheric prowess that a properly aligned organ line or a resonant guitar chord aches to be heard without vocal accompaniment.

77. The Wrens – “Napiers” b/w “What’s a Girl” 7” – Grass, 1994 – $1

The Wrens' 1994 tour single

I’ve never been particularly fond of the Wrens, whose brand of indie rock seems a bit too tepid for my tastes (at least my taste of it at the inaugural Pitchfork festival), but I have been fond of their seven-inches for other purposes. Six or seven years ago I dug a dusty copy of the Wrens’ split single with pre-Bright Eyes group Park Ave from the cheap bin at Reckless Records, knowing of Park Ave from the recent reissue CD of their early material on Urinine Records, a similar dollar bin find. A few years later I sold that now out-of-print Park Ave CD for around $30 on eBay and that split single for around $70. I don’t anticipate selling this single for anything close to the split with Park Ave, since their fans are nowhere near as rabid as Bright Eyes devotees, but I figured that it might be worth a shot. If not, it’s only $1. Hell, I might even enjoy it.

I wouldn’t say that these songs converted me into a huge Wrens fan, but there’s something endearingly slapdash about these two tracks culled from their 1994 debut Silver. “Napiers” is considerably more energetic than expected, riding a pounding drumbeat and an unhinged vocal performance to solid ends. I can’t quite place who the vocals remind me of, but it’s half late 90s emo and half modern rock. The flip starts out with some daytime TV soundtrack twinkling, but builds into a churning climax. It’s hard to take feedback-laden catharsis seriously when they interrupt it for snippets of conversation and laughter, but even with that jarring studio trick, it’s a good listen. I imagine that I’ll hold onto this single, but whether I bother tracking down Silver, Secaucus, and The Meadowlands has yet to be determined.

78. Wider – “Triangle” b/w “Bloom” 7” – Stickshift, 1993 – $1

Wider's Triangle b/w Bloom single

Another dollar, another Wider single. These songs feature Matt Sweeney on bass, which means that it’s been a big week for Sweeney’s pre-Chavez output entering my collection, but I wouldn’t count on Skunk’s sophomore effort Laid finding its way into my CD cabinet by Friday. At least I can be fairly certain that Sweeney’s brief tenure in Wider does not approach the potential embarrassment of Skunk, since Billy Corgan never name-dropped the group during a guest-hosting gig on 120 Minutes. I doubt Corgan thinks too highly of mid 1990s math-rock.

As for the actual songs, the atonal vocals detract from the tricky rhythms and brute force of inspired by early 1990s Pittsburgh-based math-rock (Don Caballero, Hurl, etc.). Hardly a surprise, since Hurl’s vocals were their weak point, too, but I can imagine Matt Sweeney piping up and saying “Hey guys, I can sing a melody here if you want” and the guitarists responding with “No thanks, pal, that’s exactly what we don’t want.”

79. Red Stars Theory– Red Stars Theory CD – Suicide Squeeze, 2001 – $1

Red Stars Theory's self-titled CD

A few days before this trip to In Your Ear, I’d flipped through my LPs and noticed that I own two Red Stars Theory records, their 1997 full-length But Sleep Came Slowly and their 2000 self-titled EP, in addition to a CD copy of Life in a Bubble Is Beautiful. For a band I own three, now four releases from, I can only recall the general approach of their music—a more dream-pop informed version of Codeine’s slow-core, with occasional trips down contemporary post-rock pathways—not any particular songs, although I do remember spinning Life in a Bubble a number of times as a pleasant pre-sleep soundtrack. I purchased this CD knowing full-well I may never listen to it, but part of me was shocked that the group had another release that I didn’t own. The gall of them! As it turns out, this self-titled CD is comprised of their first single and their first EP, a somewhat thankless reissue from Suicide Squeeze, so I’d actually been missing out on two Red Stars Theory releases. How had I survived?

Giving another listen to Life in a Bubble Is Beautiful, the Lois Maffeo guest-spot on “A Sailor’s Warning” and the languid chimes and drifting chords of “An Alarm Goes Off” stand out to some degree, but the album still seems best suited to coax me to sleep, given that two songs have done most of that work. Kip Beelman’s engineering credit sounds well-earned, however, since the layers of sound help make up for lack of hooks. I still have to give this particular album a listen, but first, sleep.

The Haul: Skunk's Last American Virgin and Idlewild's The Remote Part

Like Mystery Train, I hadn’t been up to Record Exchange since last fall, and yet unlike Mystery Train, it didn’t feel like their stock had changed since then. I recall seeing these two LPs in past visits and made similar re-encounters to other old friends that hadn’t moved in the last six months and aren’t likely to move anytime soon. (Hello again, vinyl pressings of Matthew Sweet’s first two forgettable LPs!) Part of the reason why I picked up these two records was because I didn’t know when (or if) I’ll return to Record Exchange. It’s roughly on the way back from Gloucester, but my trips to Mystery Train or RRRecords in Lowell always seem so much more fruitful. Nothing against the proprietors of Record Exchange, since they’ve been nothing but helpful whenever I’ve stopped in, but the residents of Salem need to trade in some classic vinyl pronto to help change the stock.

72. Skunk– Last American Virgin – Twin/Tone, 1989 – $5

Skunk's Last American Virgin

Morbid curiosity finally got the better of me with Skunk’s Last American Virgin, which features future Chavez singer/guitarist Matt Sweeney. Thanks to my 1994-1996 fandom of the Smashing Pumpkins, I knew of Skunk before I’d heard Chavez, since Billy Corgan regularly name-dropped the band as one of his all-time favorites (and later recruited Sweeney for the ill-fated Zwan). Unfortunately for Skunk, the twelve years since the fall-out of Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness have involved a gradual acceptance that Billy Corgan has terrible taste in music, putting quite the damper on this record.

So is Last American Virgin the lost Chavez album we’ve all hoped would surface? Is it worth spending $15 on a custom-burned CD-R from Twin/Tone to get this out-of-print album? No and no. Skunk sounds like an amped-up cousin to groups like the Replacements, early Soul Asylum, late Hüsker Dü, i.e. very Minneapolis, very late 1980s. Much like Clay Tarver’s past in Bullet Lavolta, Skunk doesn’t hold up to modern ears, since there’s too much vaguely hair metal shredding filtering into the abrasive side of 1980s college rock. The big, complex riffs of Chavez threaten to surface from time to time, but they’re usually submarined by another string of hot licks. Only “Hots on 4 Suzy” and the Meat Puppets-esque first half of “Rosie” come recommended. The rest sounds exactly like what you’d expect (dread) to hear with such an artifact. If you come across Last American Virgin in a dollar bin, it might be worth the lark for a Chavez fan, but otherwise, laugh at the big hair in the back cover photo and move on.

73. Idlewild – The Remote Part LP – Capitol, 2003 – $7

Idlewild's The Remote Part

Idlewild is my go-to example for the arc of maturity for loose, energetic groups. Starting off with the scraggly noise pop of Captain, incorporating more distinct pop hooks amid the shrieking bursts of youth on Hope Is Important, toning down the violence without losing the energy on 100 Broken Windows, achieving a comfort level but still forcing some of the old charge on The Remote Part, losing an original member and debating whether or not to break up, calming down completely on Warnings/Promises, slight pause for a solo record by singer Roddy Woomble, trying to re-energize themselves on Make Another World, putting out a best-of compilation, debating whether or not to break up. (I wish I had a supporting graph.) The Narrator essentially mirrored this arc up until their 100 Broken Windows, 2007’s excellent All This to the Wall, but they opted to split up instead of becoming the new R.E.M.; part of me wishes that Idlewild had followed suit.

I saw Idlewild on their American tour for The Remote Part, which took an extra year to come out stateside. It was right before I graduated from college and I didn’t know what I was going to do next. Idlewild, however, did know what they were doing next—becoming professional artists.There was no scramble to the performance, even when they hit the distortion pedal or revived some of the older material. As Woomble dedicated an album to a search for identity and came up with Scotland’s Answer to R.E.M., he lost most of the group’s original personality.

Yet it didn’t surprise me that “American English” and The Remote Part broke through to a number of my non-elitist friends and garnered the group an opening spot for Pearl Jam; it’s an album geared toward mass appeal, trading the occasionally opaque lyrical approach of 100 Broken Windows for a broader, inspirational stroke. The “Support your local poet” campaign that accompanied the album furthered this take on the newly mature Idlewild; the idea of supporting an artist, especially a poet, purely based on locality doesn’t sit well with me. It’s one thing when your local poet is Scottish poet laureate Edwin Morgan, whose guest appearance miraculously avoids being cringe-worthy, but on a broad scale, it trades greatness for accessibility. Those two concepts aren’t mutually exclusive, but in terms of my preferences for Idlewild, there’s a point on that imaginary graph where my interest drops off completely. It’s when Idlewild knows the answers to the questions they’re asking.

So why did I re-buy an album that marked the end of my fondness for a group? Here’s a remarkably specific answer: my sister-in-law lost her copy of the CD and I was willing to trade up to the vinyl, which I knew was sitting in Salem. I could’ve just mailed her my copy of the CD, which I haven’t played in years, but I felt like I should hold onto The Remote Part, specifically its closing track, the poet-equipped “In Remote Part / Scottish Fiction.” Some of the arena-friendly rockers, like “You Held the World in Your Arms” (a more arena-friendly title could not be found), hold up alright, but it’s that closing track that manages to maintain the group’s dwindling personality, thanks to Morgan’s recitation of his “Scottish Fiction” poem and the acoustic/electric divide. It feels more inspired than inspiring.

While the overwhelmingly bland Warnings/Promises officially killed my future interest in the group, it did not kill my fondness for 100 Broken Windows, which sits precariously between youthful energy and musical maturity and is all the better for it. Idlewild just released another album, Post Electric Blues, and I’ll probably download it to see if they’ve somehow regained their youth and my interest, just like I’ve downloaded all of those other post-Remote Part albums. But I anticipate this album suffering the same fate as its recent predecessors in my recycle bin.