I know I should like Built to Spill. As a fan of such indie rock luminaries as Modest Mouse, the Flaming Lips, and Sparklehorse, I almost have to. I bought their previous disc, "Keep It Like a Secret", on the basis of the glowing reviews it received, and although I didn't exactly regret the purchase, it never spent any significant time in my CD player before I got bored with it, no matter how many chances I gave it. I never really found anything wrong with it, but it never really took hold of my imagination, either.
Their latest, "Ancient Melodies of the Future", shows some improvement, but still doesn't rank as an outstanding record. I mean, it's pretty good, but I just don't think that, as a whole, it is achieves the greatness that this band is clearly capable of. But this latest outing does show a band with immense talent that will probably get around to making a five-star record at some point during their career.
The album starts off strongly with "Strange", a stoner's dream of trippy guitars, fuzzed out bass, and a multitude of sonic accents, from sparkling synths to layered angelic backing vocals. But before it can really take flight, the record is dragged down by the ponderous and strangely out-of-place second track, "The Host", which should build on the momentum of "Strange" but instead comes as an unwelcome interruption, like a telemarketer beeping through on call-waiting when you're talking to an old friend. Things pick up again with "In Your Mind", which takes a menacing, circular acoustic guitar riff and builds on it until the music reaches a swirling cacophony of confusion that echoes the chaotic stream-of-consciousness lyrics:
Observing the process will change it
Afterwards even if you
Subconsciously rearrange it
It doesn't seem any less true
But just as "In Your Mind" gets the album back into a groove, it is slowed by "Alarmed", which is not a bad song, but which suffers from the poorly chosen track order; like "The Host", this song feels more like a speedbump than the welcome respite that it should be.
The sequencing of the tracks is really the major flaw in this record. The way the tracks are ordered, the album just doesn't ever let itself build any momentum, so when the more subdued tracks show up, they feel extra slow because the album doesn't ever really reach a proper cruising speed. I actually tried resequencing the tracks to see if it would help the flow of the record, and to my surprise I found the album much improved. Here is a comparison of the two versions, the original and my resequenced one:
2. The Host
3. In Your Mind
5. Trimmed and Burning
7. Don't Try
8. You Are
9. Fly Around My Pretty Little Miss
10. The Weather
2. In Your Mind
3. Trimmed and Burning
5. Don't Try
6. The Host
8. Fly Around My Pretty Little Miss
9. The Weather
10. You Are
"Alarmed" actually falls in the same place on the two versions, but trust me, it's a lot stronger when it's preceded by the three tracks I've chosen. It doesn't so much slow the album down as provide a little pit stop before heading off onto the track again with "Don't Try". "The Host" is probably the most difficult track to place, and its original placement as the second track is probably the worst thing you could do with it (aside from making it the opening number). It actually isn't that long, especially for a Built to Spill song, but it feels like liquid forever as the second song. Putting it between "Don't Try" and "Happiness" gives "The Host" a more appropriate home, and doesn't make it seem as out of place as it does on the original track listing.
I know this seems like nitpicking (or hubris), but I was really stunned at how much better this album sounded once I resequenced it. With the original track listing, I dreaded almost every other song; I kept on wanting to push the skip button each time "The Host" or "Alarmed" or "You Are" came on. The resequencing allows the album allows the album to build up a good head of steam with three relatively invigorating tracks before taking a break with "Alarmed", and then gives "The Host" the space it needs to let the listener really listen to it without getting bored.
Okay, I know I'm obsessing, so let me get back to the good things about this record. Aside from "Strange" and "In Your Mind", which I've already discussed, there are several other standout tracks: "Trimmed and Burning" and "Don't Try" are both dark, aggressive rockers that seems intent on boring their way into your skull and taking up residence ("Trimmed" has some of the best love-sucks lyrics on the record: "I've agreed to always love you/But never enough to set you free"). "Fly Around My Pretty Little Miss" is a cheerful, almost jaunty tune stuffed with oddball references to outer space and aliens, while "Happiness" marries a circular slide guitar riff with witty, sarcastic lyrics in the tradition of the Smiths:
Haven't given half the time
To half the people, half the things I planned
You don't have to be so cruel
Because all I do is a little less than what I can
The band's oft-concealed sincere side shines through on two of the more subtle tracks on the album, "You Are" and "The Weather". "You Are" crafts a surprisingly intricate and engaging song on a foundation of one lyric, "Everybody knows that you are", by building the sentence practically one syllable at a time. "The Weather" is one of those classic angst songs about how empty the world would be without the person you love, but its honesty keeps it from spilling over into sappiness, and the use of a piano and an oboe-like keyboard to accent the standard guitar-bass-drums setup complements the nuanced simplicity of the lyrics (among some of the best lines: "And as long as it's talking with you/Talk of the weather will do")
If I were rating this album based on its original sequencing, I probably would have given it a 3, but with the resequencing it almost rates a 4. So let's split the difference and give this record the benefit of the doubt with a 3 1/2, because there are some truly impressive compositions here, and the more you listen to them, the more you come to love them.