A long-out-of-print album undeserving of its continued obscurity, Built to Spill's debut full-length, Ultimate Alternative Wavers, appeared mid-1993 on the now-defunct C/Z label (a sort of Sub Pop Jr. of the day), giving no clue what would happen to the band over the next 16 years. Built to Spill's debut marked one of those unfortunate and rare instances when an album suffers because it's too smart and too inspired for its audience.
It wasn't the only audio enigma from the first half of the '90s that soared over the indie-rock community's collective head. Other albums of that scene and era — Mercury Rev's Boces, the Flaming Lips' Hit to Death in the Future Head, and Stereolab's Transient Random Noise Bursts With Announcements, among others — also had fans playing catch-up.
Ultimate Alternative Wavers was essentially completed in one-man-band mode by Doug Martsch, the Seattle-by-way-of-Boise guitarist who single-handedly elevated his former band, Treepeople, beyond the trappings of indie-grunge mediocrity. Released on Up Records just a year later, Built to Spill's second album, There's Nothing Wrong With Love, laid the blueprint Martsch would spend the rest of the '90s improving on. The album sheds the experimentation (and extra instrumentation) of Ultimate and had a lasting impact on future indie/emo superstars and jaded know-it-alls, especially with "In the Morning," "Car," and "Dystopian Dream Girl."
Like J. Mascis did at the end of the previous decade, Martsch avoided the technically alienating and overtly-male tendencies inherent to guitar soloing, instead adopting a distinctly emotive, perfectly understated, and genuinely lyrical style of showmanship in which the guitar lines had the effect of vocal verses/choruses and became hooks in and of themselves.
It's no surprise that after the added exposure of playing Lollapalooza 1995, Martsch found himself with major-label attention, these being the carefree feeding-frenzy days of the mid-'90s and all. As a result, Warner Bros. released 1997's Perfect From Now On. Widely (and understandably) regarded as the band's creative peak by critics and fans alike, Perfect took everything that made There's Nothing Wrong With Love work and dialed it up several notches.
Perfect From Now On made a weird sort of indie-rock royalty out of Built to Spill. Now commonplace with acts such as Wilco, the Flaming Lips, Yo La Tengo, and My Morning Jacket, Built to Spill was one of the first indie rock bands whose music spilled over the boundaries into other genres (namely, with jam-band fans), and the band enjoyed the type of non-hit commercial success brought on by incessant touring.
With Brett Nelson and Scott Plouf part of a lineup that survives to this day, Built to Spill closed out the '90s with Keep It Like a Secret. Built to Spill now had a bigger sound, a bigger audience, and a more palatable set of songs. The band was one of the first, if not the first, to grow their sound into arena rock disguised as indie rock (or is it the other way around?), something Modest Mouse, the Flaming Lips, and Wilco did shortly thereafter.
Built to Spill's contract with Warner's required that the vinyl format of each album be released by Up Records, which embellished an appropriately epic double LP version of Live (2000) with bonus material. Recorded during different tours behind Keep It Like a Secret, the release contains a must-hear cover of Neil Young's "Cortez the Killer." Nelson and Plouf remained next to Martsch for 2001's Ancient Melodies of the Future, at times a throwback to pre-Perfect songwriting angles, but with an unprecedented use of keyboards and a depressing undercurrent that was more than likely predicting the five-year hiatus that was right around the corner.
Martsch released a solo album (Now You Know, on Warner) in 2002 which confused Built to Spill fans and gave critics the readymade review hook of comparing Martsch to the scores of '70s classic-rock luminaries who temporarily abandoned their bill-paying institutions for the obligatory blues album, ignoring the fact that it took a lot of guts to present Warner with this album before it took a lot of guts to present Now You Know to the 99 percent of his fan base that wanted another Built to Spill album.
They would have to wait another three years, but it would be worth every minute. You in Reverse is one of the only long-awaited rock albums that feels as if the creative process consumed every minute of the hiatus. It is the best album Built to Spill ever released and a refreshing enigma within the arena of 13-year-old bands. Guitarist Jim Roth was added to the seasoned Plouf/Nelson/Martsch unit, and the album was dedicated to the memory of Treepeople co-founder Pat Brown, who committed suicide in 1999.
You in Reverse was, and still is, the ultimate restorer of faith in everything that made Martsch the very special creative force behind Built to Spill's mid-'90s phase while also genuinely heavy and prone to the occasional guitar freak-out, two things no Built to Spill album has ever embraced. At a time when Martsch disciples such as Death Cab for Cutie were using the elder songsmith's way with catchiness and hooks to win the bid to become indie-rock's answer to Ambrosia and the Little River Band, Built to Spill comes blazing out of nowhere with a career-defining monster that no band half their age could come close to touching.
(This month, Built to Spill returned with another new album for Warner, There Is No Enemy.)