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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!

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On Oct 16, 12:34 AM skeptic said,