The definition of “indie rock” may have changed over the years, but the sound of the music has not. Take everything in your iTunes library assigned to that genre, make a giant playlist and hit shuffle: suddenly the ’90s don’t seem that long ago. The static nature of indie rock benefits bands like Built To Spill greatly, allowing them to put out albums like last year’s Untethered Moon, which is sonically almost identical to their 1997 classic Perfect From Now On yet doesn’t sound dated or recycled. Of course, songwriting is the key, and founder Doug Martsch still has the gift, although Sunday night’s show at Turner Hall showcased a skill that sets Martsch apart from most of his contemporaries in the genre: lead guitar.
Somehow, Martsch’s most obvious influence, Dinosaur Jr.’s J Mascis, rose above the scorn leveled by the underground crowd onto guitarists who played long, blazing guitar solos; Built To Spill is one of the few worthy successors to the Dinosaur Jr. legacy in this respect. Martsch, however, makes Mascis seem almost monochromatic, utilizing a much wider variety of effects and dynamics in his playing. His unconventional setup features a waist-level effects rig rather than the standard pedal board on the floor. Watching him fiddle with knobs throughout the show takes some of the subterfuge out of sonic manipulation, but it also adds a unique mystique to his playing. Then, when he lets go of the scientist demeanor and unleashes on the fretboard, there’s no question that he’s in the moment and feeling it rather than analyzing it.
However, the analysis aspect of Martsch’s approach may have contributed to the somewhat less-than-smooth flow of Sunday’s show. There was an abrupt halt at one point as he complained of a feedback issue that no one else seemed to hear, and transitions between songs in general seemed haphazard. Despite a few lulls, though, the power trio (currently featuring Steve Gere on drums and Jason Albertini on bass, both newcomers to the band as of the most recent album) was remarkably tight, always following Martsch’s lead. He channeled Neil Young on the heartfelt but raucous “I Would Hurt A Fly,” then switched gears for an incredibly soulful rendition of “So,” which was somewhat of a turning point for the crowd’s appreciation of the newer material.
Despite Built To Spill’s reputation for playing a wide variety of cover tunes (at least five different ones the last time they visited Milwaukee), this show featured only a single Creedence Clearwater Revival song, “Effigy,” which fit nicely into the set but wasn’t necessarily a rousing crowd-pleaser. One of the biggest audience reactions came via a brand new, unreleased song—perhaps unsurprisingly, the line “Do what we want so we do what we can / Fuck all the people who don’t understand” seemed to resonate. For a Sunday (and Father’s Day to boot), Turner Hall was pretty packed. By the set-closing “Carry The Zero,” some folks had certainly trickled out, but those remaining were as enthusiastic as Martsch. He may have been energized by that one guy fist-pumping to every lyric of the song, though.
The encore of “In The Morning,” “Big Dipper,” and “Untrustable/Part 2 (About Someone Else)” was a fitting capsule of the band’s strengths, weaving clever but impassioned lyrics into an eclectic pastiche of sweeping balladry and quirky, almost proggy (gasp!) psychedelia, and winding up in a final cacophony of guitar histrionics. Sure, there’s variety within indie rock, and Built To Spill covers most of the stylistic possibilities. It just doesn’t sound any more innovative now than it did in the ’90s, and that’s okay.