Built To Spill return to rocking ways at the Middle East

A review of Built To Spill at the Middle East Downstairs on October 18, 2009

, Staff Writer

While Built to Spill enjoyed a fair amount of success in the 1990s, releasing Perfect From Now On and Keep It Like A Secret to wide acclaim, once 2000 hit, the band entered a fairly lengthy funk. The albums kept coming, sure, but they were listless and not particularly interesting to listen to. This year’s release of There Is No Enemy, however, marks a return to form for the band. The wistful, lazy sounding nineties-style indie was back in full force, and the album has since been receiving a good amount of praise. Built to Spill have embarked on a large tour across the country to celebrate the release, and the band stopped by the Middle East in Cambridge for a three-night stand this past weekend.

What’s nice about multi-night performances is that you get a nice variation in setlists. In the case of Sunday’s show, only two songs from the band’s new album were performed; it was more or less instead a sort of retrospective on Built to Spill’s respectable volume of work. The show opened with “You Were Right” off of Like A Secret, and one that got the crowd immediately raring to go. The song is filled with lyrics pulled directly from a number of classic rock songs like “Another Brick In The Wall” or “Jack And Diane”, and every time singer Doug Martsch landed on one of them, everyone would cheer and clap. They followed up immediately with a new song, “Hindsight”, which had been kicked around for a little while at various other shows of theirs before ending up on the album. The song had a nice country twang to it complemented by some really nice guitar trills on top.

The Middle East Downstairs wound up being a very nice venue for a Built to Spill show. It suitably accommodated their sound when the band needed to be a little less raucous, like during the beginning of the nearly ten-minute epic “Randy Described Eternity”, which steadily built itself up to a total psychedelic freak-out, wah-wah pedals and all. The venue also filled out nicely when the volume went up, such as during “Stab” early in the set. As a band that’s been around for over 17 years, it’s no surprise that Built to Spill play together just about perfectly: there’s a lot of space in between the notes at times – lots of room to mess up – and yet I didn’t pick up on a single flub by any member of the band.

With the set showcasing materials from throughout Built to Spill’s history, one unavoidable aspect of the band to note is how remarkably consistent they’ve been able to stay throughout their existence. While the songs from Ancient Melodies of the Future and You In Reverse (2001 and 2006, respectively) may have been musically weaker in the grand scheme of their catalogue, the band hasn’t really changed their sound in any major way for a long time – the last couple albums may have featured some more head-in-the-clouds jamming, but that’s about it.

The main set ended with “Nowhere Nothin’ Fuckup”, which just sounded like the perfect closer for this show. It’s musically very triumphant and final, and is also the only song from their first album that was played that evening. The diehards in the room (and there were many) were quite pleased to hear their favorite band play such an old tune, and Martsch sang with gratitude to those in the crowd. The band returned for a three-song encore of “The Weather”, “Planting Seeds” (which was the other track on their new album to be performed), and “Going Against Your Mind” to wrap the whole thing up.

Built to Spill have been around for a very long time, having influenced the likes of Modest Mouse, The Strokes, and Death Cab For Cutie, just to name a few. In spite of having a profound influence on the music of this decade, they’re not content to hang it up and fade into obscurity. Rather, the band has been revitalized with their most recent creative effort. The live Built to Spill experience is a powerful one, seemingly losing none of the luster that it had over the years, and with luck they’ll continue to travel down the consistent and high-quality road that has brought seven albums so far.

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