Saturday, October 24, 2009

We Will Fight Them on the Beaches

There Is No Enemy
Built to Spill

There's no way to describe how There Is No Enemy differs from the last Built to Spill record in a capsule. Nor does it compare with any of their earlier records in a straight-line fashion. Doug Martsch has been killing himself to make their albums unique since There's Nothing Wrong with Love, and since they've made so many terrific records now it has to be getting more and more difficult each time out. Since their second record, really only one Built to Spill album (2001's Ancient Melodies of the Future) has been less than excellent. And that album might have been made simply to get out of a record contract.

As it happens, BTS didn't get dropped from Warner Brothers, although they have returned to working at a pace that suits Martsch's perfectionist tendencies more kindly. They've only made two albums in eight years, but what albums! You in Reverse could have been compared facetiously to the dense, complex Perfect from Now On, but only by someone who wasn't listening terribly closely. The record did have less obvious hooks and odder song structures than the norm, but its stripped-down production presented the closest representation of the band as they sound live since the indie days. There Is No Enemy has more immediate hooks and singable lines, like Keep It Like a Secret, but it's not as simple as all that.

This is the most densely orchestrated music Martsch has yet issued under the Built to Spill banner, with horns, cello, pedal steel guitar, and now at least three guitarists on every song. Guitarists Brett Netson and Jim Roth have been recording and touring with the band for ages now, but this is the first time the full five-man lineup (Martsch, Netson, Roth, bassist Brett Nelson, and invaluable drummer Scott Plouf) have all gotten band member credits. Whether that long overdue change was due to confusion between Nelson and Netson's names or ominous major-label legal interference is beyond me. In any event, since the difficult recording process of Perfect from Now On songwriter/arranger Martsch has been very careful to use separate guitar players rather than overdubs when he hears multiple parts in his head; as a result the band has stayed at a standard of quality in their releases and their live performances that's pretty much unmatched in the wide world of modern indie.

The production, by Martsch and Pulsar Dave Trumfio, is low on frills and high on clarity. That allows every instrument to be heard clearly, even when there's nine or ten musicians contributing to a track. The inclination here is to let every player do their own thing, from all three highly distinctive guitarists to notable guests like Sam Coomes, Paul Leary, and Roger Joseph Manning Jr. That it doesn't get cluttered or busy is due mostly to Martsch's enormous talent as an arranger and some of his most generously melodic songs in years. You in Reverse was a groove record, if a great one; There Is No Enemy finds Martsch in a more extroverted mood, with things to say and big hooks to carry his words.

"Nowhere Lullaby" is the most outright country-flavored thing the band has ever done, while "Pat" surges with a punk directness (in the lyrics, too) Martsch hasn't much used since his Treepeople days. Although his most notable work combines lo-fi and dance influences (think lots of compression), Trumfio turns out to be a most sympathetic producer here. Only the processed rhythm guitar backing to "Good Ol' Boredom" much bears his stamp. Otherwise the songs are presented in a democratic fashion that allows new ideas (the pedal steel and horn charts) to rub peaceably against the sort of tangled guitar licks that have defined Built to Spill since Ultimate Alternative Wavers. Only "Done," which sounds like a remix of the last album's "Saturday," sounds like it has more instruments than it needs.

Perhaps anticipating the habits of overly analytical record critics, Martsch has placed his epics at the end of the running order here rather than beginning with them as he did the last time out. "Tomorrow" is one of the less-adorned songs on There Is No Enemy, the band jamming things out as they've always done, while "Things Fall Apart" cleverly transitions a horn fanfare into a wah-soaked guitar lead. Abrupt structural changes in the style of Perfect from Now On are less prevalent here than more logical song development. Those who found the subtle You in Reverse a little repetitive or droning will probably enjoy There Is No Enemy more, as Martsch's sometimes-neglected ear for melodic development is back in force on this one.

It's hard to put in context with all their other records, since it doesn't compare directly with any one of them. Final judgement will have to be reserved until I can get my hands on the vinyl. But There Is No Enemy makes it clear that Doug Martsch and his band don't need anyone to tell them what they should sound like or how often they should put out albums. They're doing just fine.

Built to Spill play tonight, Saturday the 24th, at Stubb's.

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