Rock-and-roll guitar heroes are supposed to be confident showmen, larger-than-life figures. Their bravado makes plain why the guitar is so often taken as a phallic symbol. But Built To Spill's Doug Martsch is a different kind of guitar hero: a guitar hero for people who don't trust traditional guitar heroes. His obsessive playing, sometimes elegantly epic, sometimes spastic and unhinged, feels more feminine, more exploratory than assertive. His winsome voice (which contrasts with his Pacific Northwest lumberjack looks) and wonder-filled songwriting add to the package. If you want a visual equivalent for the typical Built To Spill song, think of the opening shot of the Jodie Foster/Carl Sagan sci-fi flick Contact, where the entire universe is revealed to be a gleam in a little girl's eye. Like that shot, Martsch's music threatens maudlin but usually finds magic.
The band's first album (Martsch essentially is Built To Spill), 1993's Ultimate Alternative Wavers, was a lovably disjointed slab of post-punk prog, with Velvet Underground homages and a theme song ("Built To Spill," natch) that set a tone simultaneously sad-sack and chin-up ("This is how you'll always feel/It's no big deal").
Next was 1994's distinct pure-pop gem, There's Nothing Wrong With Love, an anomaly in the band's catalog in that the guitar work was overshadowed by the songcraft, but it was perhaps the most underrecognized rock record of the decade. Mixing his sugar-rush guitars with some of the finest cello work to ever grace a pop record, Martsch produced an unforgettable batch of songs, touching on such topics as elementary school eroticism ("Seven-up, I touched her thumb, and she knew it was me"), stargazing ("Big Dipper"), wistful childhood memories ("My mom's good/She got me out of Twin Falls, Idaho/Before I got too old/You know how that goes"), knowing slacker humor ("Jack thought it twice and thought that that had made it true/Some brains just work that way/That's what chemicals can do"), and the perspective of his own unborn son ("Ain't it strange that I can dream when there's nothing I have ever seen?").
But Built To Spill's third album, 1997's Perfect From Now On (which also marked the beginning of one of the longest and oddest indie-band/major-label partnerships ever), set the pattern the band has locked into since. The lyrics, though still lovely, were somewhat less essential, but the music was anything but. It's a guitar-rock album of epic grandeur, like an indie-rock answer to Neil Young's Ragged Glory or a shy kid's alternative to Sonic Youth's Daydream Nation or My Bloody Valentine's Loveless. Since then, the band has been playing with that formula: Keep It Like a Secret a little harder-edged, Ancient Melodies of the Future more modest. Live captured the arena-rock-for-small-clubs dynamic, with a take on Young's "Cortez the Killer."
It's somewhat surprising that the band is still around, but they have a new album due out later this fall, and Martsch is one of those singular talents worth a special trip. The first time I saw him was at a tiny Minneapolis dive bar in 1994, and it still ranks as an all-time personal concert highlight. Check out Built To Spill at Young Avenue Deli Monday, May 23rd.
Local indie-rockers Snowglobe play the Hi-Tone Café Saturday, May 21st, which ordinarily might not be so notable, but this particular show will mark the final performance with co-founder Brad Postlethwaite, who recently quit the band. Postlethwaite is apparently focusing on graduate school aspirations but says he'll continue recording solo and working with Makeshift, the local indie label he helped found and which has become a major force on the local rock scene. Snowglobe will be joined by Glossary and May Gray for this farewell gig.
Though I doubt Congress has approved it, this week is apparently Hip-Hop Appreciation Week, and the city's underground hip-hop scene isn't letting the week pass without proper observance. There will be a panel discussion -- "Memphis Hip-Hop: Originality or Conformity?" -- at Precious Cargo coffee house Thursday, May 19th, a "Hopped Out" happy-hour event at the Center for Southern Folklore Friday, May 20th, and then some serious music Saturday, May 21st: first, an MC and DJ battle at Tower Records at noon and then a group hip-hop show being dubbed "Revenge of the Lyrisith" that night at Precious Cargo featuring the Iron Mic Coalition, Poisonous Dialect, and others. --