By: Eric G.
Let’s pretend for a second that live albums are a necessity. Let’s also pretend that they sound good. Built To Spill’s version of the bloated beast that is the live album makes it easy to suspend disbelief and accept these as givens. Since leaving the Treepeople in a huff after the release of Just Kidding in 1993, Doug Martsch has focused his mighty guitar prowess on making catchy but mild-mannered indie rock. Martsch’s whiny voice has an unidentifiably endearing quality. Maybe it’s the syrupy tone of his high-pitched inflection, or maybe it’s the way he wraps his lovelorn lyrics around super-charged guitar stampedes that somehow retain a perfect sense of melody and structure. Regardless, Martsch has carved out a guitar god shrine at which even Dinosaur Jr. acolytes now worship.
Everyone knows that live albums are an easy way to buy time until the next ‘real’ album. They often magnify a band’s weaknesses, though. The beauty of a concert is that it’s fleeting. Your mind invariably plays tricks on you. Even though you know a song doesn’t sound quite right live you attribute any mistakes to the artistic license inherent to the ‘live interpretation.’ Sometimes, bands break the mold and actually sound better in concert. This is extremely rare, of course. Even The Beatles sounded sort of flat live (on the Anthologies, anyway). Nirvana was hit or miss. Radiohead is the only band I can honestly say blew away all of my expectations and delivered the goods and then some. Well, Radiohead and Prince. Nobody can touch Prince in concert…
Built To Spill turns into a rocking beast live. The guitars sound alive and hungry for action. This live album draws heavily from the band’s past two records, Perfect From Now On and Keep It Like A Secret, respectively. Perfect From Now On elevated Martsch from mere indie rock icon to ultimate underground guitar idol. The songs are long and meandering, but Martsch’s guitar intricacy and trickery keeps the yawns at bay. The fact that he packs each song so full of hooks and sing-along melodies doesn’t hurt either. Keep It Like A Secret showed the sunnier side of the band but lost some of the dark overtones. It all sounds immediate and tight live, though. Built To Spill just may be one of those rare bands to outshine its studio incarnations.
There’s still a contingent of people who scoff at any song- no matter how good it is- that’s over four minutes in length, and this group has a point. Do we really need twenty minutes of Neil Young’s “Cortez The Killer?” Probably not but such indulgence isn’t all a waste. In addition to Martsch’s disturbingly accurate imitation of Young, his guitar practically sizzles in the speakers in between verses. “Stop The Show” reveals a dynamic range live that makes the studio version seem claustrophobic in retrospect. “Car” is just a crowd-pleasing rendition of a fan favorite, and “Virginia Reel Around The Fountain” (culled from Martsch’s other band The Halo Benders) juxtaposes silly lyrics with an angst-ridden delivery- the nod to the Smiths in the title not going unnoticed. Built To Spill cleverly melds its indie rock roots with gratuitous guitar virtuosity and ambiguously weird lyrics for an unique pop package that droves of bands are just now starting to imitate. This live album should bring them all back down to reality- it’s not as easy as it sounds.