By Jack Spencer
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By Reed Fischer
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Not ten seconds into the new Ancient Melodies of the Future (Warner Bros.), you, the longtime Built to Spill fan, will have found your way home. Stomping, chomping, romping rhythm section with Brett Nelson (bass) and Scott Plouf (drums) barreling along at a comfortable tempo? Check. Adenoidal singer/guitarist/mastermind Doug Martsch whining at the cosmos or into the beanbag he's sitting in? Check. Vocal melody chunky enough to inspire a Ben & Jerry's flavor? Guitars hooky and fuzzy and subtly layered to hover in the atmosphere? Dated first of the month, baby. And, perhaps most important of all: lyrics that drag the music from the mystical heavens back into the center of the singer's universe simply by virtue of being so goddamned passive-aggressive? Check-mate. After all, these things are what indie rockers are all about, even when they are still semi-miraculously being bankrolled by AOL Time-Warner. Right?
Right. The passive aggressiveness even comes through the swirl of guitars and the needling Roxichord of Quasi keyboardist Sam Coomes. The prime example of Martsch's emotional remove might emerge on the chorus of "Strange," which sees him conducting a sort of internal dialogue with blunt sourness: "And it's strange/But nothing's all that strange/And it's strange/What's so strange about that/And it's strange/But what isn't strange/And it's strange." Topping it all is the quintessential passive-aggressive maneuver: "But oh well." Right, Doug. Whatever. Never mind.
This isn't merely the pleasure principle dosed with the reality principle: post-punk rock's perennial calling card. It's the sound of a man determined to refuse too much responsibility. For a long time, this attitude has seemed especially levelheaded in relation to the rock-star mill that Martsch famously disdains--he has refused to relocate from his native Boise and avoided extended stretches of touring to prevent lengthy separations from his family, while approaching his seeming obligation to move to a major label with a "What, me worry?" shrug. But on Ancient Melodies of the Future, Martsch frequently sounds as if he's announcing that you probably shouldn't count on him for anything.
Martsch seems to have reached an almost Zen-like state of nonchalance, but it's hard not to wonder exactly what he's trying to prove--or disprove--and to whom. He's never exactly self-pitying, but what can one make of lines like "No one can tell me to listen/No one can tell me what's right/'Cause nobody has my permission/'Cause no one can see in your mind," from "In Your Mind"? Or "They never feel/They don't even seem real/They never try/So why should I?" from "The Host"--a sentiment echoed later on the album with the song titled simply "Don't Try"?
The obvious guess is that Martsch has grown to hate a job he used to love. Anyone who could record 1997's Perfect From Now On three different times and double-track his vocals when merely upping the wattage of one would do could not be seen as uncaring about his work. Either Martsch is restless with Built to Spill and wants to end the band, or he's sick of Warner Bros., for whom Ancient Melodies is the final album under his current contract.
Martsch has been dropping broad hints in interviews about the band's imminent demise for years now. ("This is the first record that felt really routine," he says in the current issue of Tower Pulse! "In a way it made me think it might...be time for a change. We're going to do this touring...through the end of the year, and then I'm going to reassess my whole situation.") And though the Warner Bros. deal afforded him plenty of exposure, he has long maintained that he'd be just as happy making music for his friends and loved ones--exclusively, if need be.
Listening to Ancient Melodies, it's hard not to wonder how true that might still be. Martsch really does enjoy his relative anonymity, staying at home, and occasionally making albums with Beat Happening's Calvin Johnson under the moniker the Halo Benders. Built to Spill may be one of the most transcendent live bands in rock, but I've never seen Martsch happier during a performance as when Johnson took over his stage at a Seattle club last summer. Relegated to backup singer, he looked like a weight had been lifted from him.
There are certainly cleaner ways of closing out a contract than by delivering such stoic lyrical angst inside the most expansive album of your career. A psychedelic wooziness spills out all over Ancient Melodies, with an apathetic army of guitars sent squiggling through the wah-wah pedal. Several cuts, like the droney "In Your Mind" and "Alarmed," feature moody string arrangements that resemble a slow-motion take on Love's underside-of-the-Summer-of-Love classic, Forever Changes. And with the 20-minute versions of Neil Young's "Cortez the Killer" and "Broken Chairs" from last year's Live having cemented his status in the never-ending six-stringers' pantheon, Martsch seems to have decided to become a backward guitar god: Few albums of putatively mainstream rock have featured as much tape-reversed six-string action since the Seventies.
Even if Martsch were going to start releasing such gorgeous stuff on his own, you would think he would want people to hear it. Why go to the trouble otherwise? Put "The Host" on headphones and a garden of earthly delights erupts in your ears: Cello and strings and candied guitars blossom all over the stereo field like the cake-frosting mushrooms in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.
But Ancient Melodies feels trapped and suffocated in its mood. Only once, toward the end of a distressingly humdrum second half, does Martsch seem to achieve any sort of freedom. "Fly Around My Pretty Little Miss" is the kind of weird, catchy thing that Martsch seems capable of writing in his sleep: buzzing mosquito guitar hook and solo (doubled on kazoo), the irresistible chants of "maybe" at the end of the second verse, the chorus wrapping around itself: "Fly around my pretty little miss/Why don't you."
It's the one time on Ancient Melodies that his lyrics achieve the same sense of heightened attentiveness as the music. I still can't get the sound Martsch makes out of my head. But he seems less and less sure why he might be making it.