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Review: Built to Spill Enter the Rock-Will-Never-Die Stage on ‘Untethered Moon’

Built to Spill
SPIN Rating: 7 of 10
Release Date: April 21, 2015
Label: Warner Bros.

Even in those bygone days when guitar wranglers prowled all-ages clubs, Doug Martsch’s method seemed messianic: six strings exploring the sublime. Nominally indie after nearly a quarter century enjoying the good graces of Warner Bros., Built to Spill have never escaped those Dinosaur Jr. comparisons even if it’s now clear that Martsch’s melodic reserves plunge deeper than those of J Mascis (obvious influence Neil Young aside, Television sometimes feels like a more logical correlation for these Idahoans, all those spiky riffs and solos corkscrewing around a buoyant rhythm section).

With unrepentant guitar improv now a lonely outpost rather than alt trend, you could be forgiven for thinking this six-years-in-the-making document from a reconfigured lineup might fall victim to the fussed-over pattern of Martsch’s last few releases. Instead, on Untethered Moon, the crew sounds as taught and lean as ever.

No doubt, the band’s decision to pare these songs down into a ten-cut, 46-minute release from initial plans of being a double album did the trick (candid as always, Martsch has alluded to barely staying awake through an early, pre-revision listen). Balancing the pop ache of old favorites like “Carry The Zero” with multi-part rock structures condensed into seconds rather than minutes, bass/drum duo (and former BtS roadies) Jason Albertini and Steve Gere plow ahead courtesy of a sympathetic and uncluttered mix from Quasi’s Sam Coomes (Pacific Northwest in the house).

Everything is to the point: “All Our Songs” kicking off with “California Sun” drum rumbles, broad jokes like Martsch dropping a wah-wah feline yowl as a punch line to his tiger reference in “Living Zoo.” Tempos remain brisk, the sole slow one fading out after a mere two minutes and 44 seconds. Pop instincts remain fine-tuned, with “Never Be The Same” carousing amid an especially infectious hook. And their proggier tendencies play out with concision, as when “Some Other Song” whizzes through interlocking riffs and sweet slide in just over a minute before Martsch sighs with “I can’t wait to get back home to you.”

Longtime fans will note Martsch’s lyrics still serve largely as rhythmic placeholders, even if flashes of pragmatic wisdom surface: “Now is all that matters,” “When I’m blind I’ll see,” “I don’t know exactly what you do,” and oh, “Rock’n’roll will be here forever.” But the guitar remains his primary method of expression, heard in all its glory in the concluding eight-minute grunge/skiffle torpedo “When I’m Blind.” As Albertini and Gere lock into a steady gallop, Martsch unleashes tight chordal clusters, single-note flurries, and even a little fuzzed-out Allman Brothers twin-guitar lead. Those sympathetic to Marshall-stacked visions will hang on every snarl.