Album Review: Built to Spill – There Is No Enemy (Warner Bros.)

There_is_No_EnemyIf you’ve seen Built to Spill live in the last few years, you probably got a preview of a few of the tracks on There is No Enemy. “Good Ol’ Boredom,” “Life’s A Dream,” and “Done” are the kind of drawn out songs that originally had me suspecting the new album would follow in the vein of You In Reverse.  However, while those are some jammier tracks that probably needed road-testing, the band has largely reined in the more free-form, improvisation-based structures that carried the day on their 2006 release.  Instead, they have returned to the mastery of the sometimes overlooked process of recording and editing.  That same process set them apart from the alternative slacker icons who ruled the scene when they started (and have since become relics of the past).

The most striking thing about There Is No Enemy, their sixth album, is its openness. Where previous albums maintained a similar tone from start to finish, their latest finds them approaching each track with a different attitude.  The group manages the always-difficult task of marshaling an even ratio of new tricks to familiar sounds. The first few seconds of “Aisle 13″ might throw longtime listeners for a loop (electronic noises?), but these ominous beats only last a few seconds before being overrun by Built to Spill’s trademark team of guitars and drums, a cascade of disjointed pop sounds that would have fit seamlessly on Keep It Like A Secret. “Aisle 13″ actually ends up being one of the strongest and most rousing pop tunes in the band’s oeuvre, especially on the chorus’ ever-so-slightly-out-of-tune, double-tracked guitars.

Never a band to rest once they’ve reached a plateau, “Hindsight” breaks out the steel guitars for an indie-country (and Western) track. That the band employs the kind of focus and taste that would allow a writer to label a particular track as “country” influenced is emblematic of the spirit of this album as a whole. While the transitions don’t happen as unexpectedly as they did in the band’s early years, the individual songs breathe a little more and have a better sense of identity. At this stage of their career, they seem comfortable letting the sing-song backing vocals of “Life’s a Dream” stand completely separate from the messy rush of “Pat.”

Lyrically, Doug Martsch is as specific as he can be, musing “What about Canada?” as he describes a kind of person who chronically and purposelessly hates on their surroundings. Elsewhere his observations play less on the epistemological turns of phrase of epics like Perfect from Now On, and speaks more of strange acts like “called by name to clean Aisle 13″ as well as to universal themes such as choosing between “the meekness of love or the power of pride.”

Ultimately Martsch’s lyrics are at their best as graceful bit players when compared to the density of the music. His vocabulary is utilitarian–on “Planting Seeds” he repeats a line he used sixteen years before when he sings “Make up your mind / make it up as you go.” His lyrics are sometimes closer to syllogisms than poems. There Is No Enemy, much the same as Built to Spill’s best albums, is a journey on the backs of the band’s stunningly defined rhythms. Martsch’s melodies, his words, his seemingly endless deck of studio manipulations and effects are characters you meet along the way, wandering around in the night, revealing themselves for a furtive moment and then slinking away unaffected.

Built to Spill’s MySpace page reports that Doug Martsch basically lived in the studio for the recording of the album, evidenced by the sheer diversity of sounds on display here. Few other bands put as much thought into constructing an arrangement as these guys do and where the band’s classic rock heroes (re: Neil Young) might have thrown a guitar solo (the close of “Done”), Built to Spill are more likely to layer three or four gradually shifting rhythms.  When Martsch does decide to solo, it’s never an attempt to cram as much filler into one space as possible, or to play as atonally as possible.  The notes remain precise and vital. That same MySpace report claims that Built to Spill were considering retirement. But as long as there are still melodies this compelling to be coaxed out of the darkness, we can only hope there are many more years to come.

Label: Warner Bros. Records

Release date: Oct 6 2009

Track list:

  1. “Aisle 13″ – 3:17
  2. “Hindsight” – 3:38
  3. “Nowhere Lullaby” – 3:59
  4. “Good Ol’ Boredom” – 6:31
  5. “Life’s a Dream” – 4:53
  6. “Oh Yeah” – 5:21
  7. “Pat” – 2:40
  8. “Done” – 6:53
  9. “Planting Seeds” – 4:26
  10. “Things Fall Apart” – 6:15
  11. “Tomorrow” – 7:40

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