Graded on a Curve:
Built to Spill,
Untethered Moon

Boise, Idaho’s Built to Spill have returned with a new studio album, one making no major adjustments to a program that elevated the Doug Martsch-led band into the upper echelon of indie-spawned post-grunge success stories. Untethered Moon is largely defined by familiarity; it starts strong, explores a comfort zone through its middle, and culminates in raucous fashion. It’s out on vinyl for Record Store Day and will be available digitally and on CD April 21st.

By any yardstick, five and a half years between releases is a long time, the longest in Built to Spill’s history in fact. But on the other hand, the gap merely replaces their second lengthiest layoff, the period separating 2001’s Ancient Melodies of the Future and ‘06’s You in Reverse. The latest break comes from a group with considerable achievements under its belt, prominent amongst them a substantial fanbase for their easily recognizable blend of classic and indie rock.

If unapologetically utilizing the tried-and-true template of guitar bass drums and vocals, those unfamiliar with Built to Spill shouldn’t assume theirs is a study in stylistic redundancy, as Doug Martsch’s unit has long-ago transcended the initial indie-centric descriptor of the new band from the guy who used to be in Treepeople.

Those origins are documented on ‘93’s Ultimate Alternative Wavers, ‘94’s There’s Nothing Wrong with Love (the place for newbies to start) and ’96’s The Normal Years, a comp issued by K Records; it was during this era that Martsch collaborated with K’s head honcho Calvin Johnson, noted producer/ex-Pell Mell keyboardist Steve Fisk and others in the Halo Benders.

Built to Spill slid very comfortably into a still productive relationship with Warner Brothers, releasing a string of acclaimed slabs, namely ‘97’s Perfect from Now On, ‘99’s Keep It Like a Secret, and Ancient Melodies of the Future. Additionally, the oft lineup-shifting outfit’s extension of prime influence Neil Young sorta hit its apex with the 20 minute rendition of Crazy Horse’s “Cortez the Killer” found on 2000’s Live, the title of which should make plain is a performance disc.

The existence of Live should dually underscore Built to Spill’s nature as an unabashed rock act and the level of the band’s popularity; if their last two records, ‘06’s You in Reverse and ‘09’s There Is No Enemy, weren’t as well-received critically, neither were they misfires. Impressively, Built to Spill has never stunk up the joint, quite a feat for a group with eight completed albums.

Yes, that means Untethered Moon adds to the string; while not their best LP, it connects as a modest improvement upon There Is No Enemy, a platter that unwound a mite too laid back as it simultaneously felt a little overstuffed. Here the set begins with mid-tempo heft, “All Our Songs” also displaying judicious use of guitar effects, the pace quickening in the second half and reeling off a nice rave-up for the conclusion.

“Living Zoo” delivers a sustained instrumental opening as new drummer Steve Gere and bassist Jason Albertini (stepping in for Scott Plouf and Brett Nelson) get in their licks. Momentarily flaunting an increasingly anthemic groove, the cut segues without a hitch into a bout of Martsch’s distinctive vocalizing.

A mess of soaring guitar unfurls near the close, and a micro-dollop of wah-pedal grit is very enjoyable. At a bit over four minutes it’s a tidy scenario leading into the similarly situated “On the Way,” which commences with crisp strumming before bursting into a torrent of soloing mid-way through. Soon enough, a sweet rhythmic gallop/string tangle surfaces and is truncated too soon by a fade out.

“Some Other Song” begins with a chunky riff accented with a savvy amount of distortion. It also sneaks in a touch of slide and a pretty solo spot, though as on numerous predecessors Martsch’s singing brings it all together. It’s also where Untethered Moon enters a pleasant but relatively safe core, the track followed by the brightly-hued jangle pop of “Never Be the Same.”

“C.R.E.B.” lays out a tougher landscape reminiscent of the stripped-down pop-rock of the late-‘70s, and with an appropriate undercurrent of reggae/dub blended in, an unsurprising tactic given the appearance of the Jamaica-impacted “They Got Away” b/w “Re-Arrange” single back in ’07, a fairly nifty attempt by Martsch at widening the scope.

The achy tug of the riffing and emoting in “Another Day” gestures toward Built to Spill’s ‘90s high points, though it also brandishes a succession of broadening instrumental flavors. And from “Living Zoo” forward the selections are consistently concise, which is worth mentioning in relation to a band with a tendency to stretch out.

The brevity works in their favor, but while “Horizon to Cliff – The Rise” hits all the marks, it lacks the spectacular and ends short of three minutes with a rather abrupt fade out. By contrast, “So” rises up, its gnawing distortion giving way to Martsch on the mic and then reemerging with gusto through the long-established classic/indie mix.

It sets up the punchy and raw environment of “When I’m Blind,” the LP’s standout saved for last as it unravels spacious guitar-splatter in tandem with Gere and Albertini’s momentum. And after heading outward beyond eight minutes they shrewdly rein things in, melody and vocals capping a fine batch of tunes.

While there are certainly memorable songs in Built to Spill’s oeuvre, they’ve basically excelled as an album entity over time, a strong suit that continues with Untethered Moon even as it doesn’t quite reach the heights attained in past work. But as outlined above, the record does gather a few moments landing in the vicinity of previous breakthroughs. More importantly, when inhabiting their comfort zone they avoid any through-the-motions/by-the-numbers stuff, and for a group closing in on a quarter century of activity, the lack of filler is worthy of note. And salute.

Built to Spill discs might be arriving with less frequency as the years add up, but late-works by veteran bands are all too commonly assessed as being “for the fans.” That Martsch and crew have sidestepped this snag is admirable; Untethered Moon offers a vibrant whole and is poised to recruit some new listeners moving ahead.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B+

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