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Formed in the early 90’s in the wake of Martsch’s band Treepeople, Built to Spill developed their early cult following in their native Pacific Northwest where they, nearly alone, carry the torch for Idaho. Their sound is born of ‘60’s melodic pop, ‘70’s album-oriented rock, and the pensive, post-punk musings of ‘80’s art rock. The Beatles, Neil Young, and R.E.M. all have footholds in Built to Spill’s sound. Jangling verses give away to soaring choruses, guitars are layered upon guitars, and Martsch’s warble wavers across the top.
Untethered Moon, their latest on Warner Bros. (they’ve not been true indie nearly twenty years), is the first album recorded since the departure of the band’s founding drummer, Scott Plouf, and longtime bassist, Brett Nelson. The band has been on the road in its latest iteration for a couple years now and very clearly gelled before entering the sessions for Untethered Moon. Drummer Steve Gere is the most notable addition. Where Plouf’s grooves accented Martsch’s riffs, Gere’s sound is less polished, and, though this may sound negative, it’s not. This, along with a new drive in Martsch’s songwriting and the band’s arranging, leads to the most muscular sounding iteration to date. Guitars aren’t just fuzzy, but buzz with a raw power that evokes J Mascis of Dinosaur Jr. more than previous Built to Spill outings. Make no mistake, this is a band with a purpose, even if, as Martsch seems to claim, they don’t know what it is.
All the band’s influences seem perfectly in-sync on Untethered Moon. From the upbeat snap of lead single “Living Zoo,” to the familiar Martsch balladry of “Horizon to Cliff,” to the angular guitars of the Television-esque “C.R.E.B.,” Martsch and company have created an album with something for the long-time fan and the initiate; both familiar and fresh. The album’s climax, the initially pensive “When I’m Blind,” is truly remarkable, finding the band capturing a fury that, to date, has only appeared in live performances and few bands ever come close to memorializing on a studio recording.
Despite their emergence in the ‘90’s indie and alternative scene, Built to Spill’s unwavering longevity has given way to a status that actually suits them: a cult band with a following that’s akin to Rush’s. It’s not particularly cool to be a BtS fan, but it’s always been rewarding, as the band’s consistency and live accessibility is what’s earned them their reputation.Where the last couple releases may not have generated new fans for the band and their seeming omnipresence on the touring circuit may have lulled the less fervent, Untethered Moon is a shot across the bow: twenty years on, Built to Spill still has ample fuel left for the fire.