As guitar maestro and frontman for Built to Spill, Doug Martsch has developed an instantly recognizable sound — soaring, layered guitars, pounding rhythm section, quirky lyrics — that often builds into a psychedelic frenzy. At least, that much characterized the band's earlier output.
For the band's last two albums, You in Reverse and There Is No Enemy, Martsch used Built to Spill's riff-heavy post-punk sound to create something that clearly was future-facing. Gone were the swirling, lifting, hypnotic tracks and in their place were tighter, more concise songs that managed to retain the band's distinctive essence. The psychedelia remained, but the intensity had been toned down in favor of string sections and less musical rambling — which was good or bad, depending on your point of view.
Martsch hadn't lost any love for experimental guitar explorations, though, as he tempted listeners with his inimitable tone and style. Perhaps Built to Spill fans needed a few extra spins to "find" the band's edgy past on its most recent albums — but the shifts only heightened the anticipation for the future.
Of course, the future of Built to Spill has been difficult to forecast for a while. There Is No Enemy was released in 2009, and, at the time, Martsch indicated it might be the final Built to Spill album. Such sentiments are not surprising, however. Martsch is known for pouring his entire soul into each record, practically living in the studio as he ceaselessly searches for that perfect tone and feel.
There Is No Enemy took three and a half years to create. Maybe Martsch laid down the gauntlet when he sang "I'm going to be perfect from now on," on the band's 1999 major-label debut, Perfect from Now On, because he's trying to be just that. See him miss a note in concert and see a visibly pained look appear on his face.
"It always pains me when we fuck up," he told this reporter back in 2003. "I'd love to be perfect."
Case in point.
So is he just too hard on himself to continue recording albums? And what about the marketplace for such well-conceived music — is the effort worth it? Record sales, even for a highly acclaimed indie-rock band like Built to Spill, can generate only so much satisfaction for a perfectionist like Martsch. So why bother?
At least Martsch and his band — longtime guitarists Brett Netson and Jim Roth and newer members drummer Steve Gere and bassist Jason Albertini — keep the music alive by touring. For now, Martsch should be comfortable with the music he's playing, wanting it to be perfect, of course, but free of the stress associated with creating more of it.
That only makes it better when the band tackles on stage the stripped-down melody of "Car" from There's Nothing Wrong with Love and the angular guitar lines and driving backbeat of "In Your Mind" from the appropriately named Ancient Melodies of the Future or roars into the sonic send-up of "Broken Chairs" from Keep It Like a Secret. And that's just for starters.
In 2003, he was straightforward about his ambitions. "I am never really trying to do anything other than . . . I don't know," he said, struggling for the right words and then laughing. "Uh, make good music." Whether on record or on the stage, Martsch now and forever will hold up that end of the bargain.