Review Summary: Campfire Built To Spill featuring acoustic slide...
Some albums are soundtracks for summer. Some albums are the voice of an entire generation. Some albums are like a weekend camping trip with your quirky uncle Doug. That is, if your uncle happens to be indie-guitar hero Doug Martsch of Built To Spill fame. On his lone solo album Now You Know, everybody’s favorite Idahoan uncle loads up the wagon, stocks the cooler, and takes us out to the woods so that we can become better acquainted. Don’t worry pre-teens, Uncle Doug looks a little strange and his voice is a tad high, but you have nothing to fear (it’s not that kind of camping trip).
What becomes clear almost immediately is that Doug has been doing some serious soul-searching. It seems he’s discovered slide guitar and the lyrical qualities it affords him in songwriting. He’s been studying the masters and has developed some pretty cool licks. There’s no mistaking him for Robert Johnson or Muddy Waters, but it is evident that he’s picked up on their techniques. Much more another means of creative expression than a tribute to the Delta Blues, Now You Know is littered with jangly guitar-driven tracks which sound more like stripped-down Built To Spill than traditional blues.
In all seriousness, Now You Know feels like an intimate glimpse into the personal triumph and tragedy of this solemn figure. The lyrics are mostly straight forward and allow the listener some opportunity for personal interpretation. Lines such as “Now you should know by now, it’s a small sound that holds you down” are genius to some (i.e. this reviewer) and unremarkable to others. The instrumentation here is sparse, with only a handful of songs containing some semblance of a standard rock arrangement. You will encounter small doses of non-traditional percussion and cello, as well some instrumental and vocal overdubs on the album’s eleven tracks, but these merely fill the acoustic space and serve to enhance Doug Martsch’s sprightly arrangements.
Sadly, the tempo of Now You Know never rises above that of a Neil Young-esque stomp. Album opener “Offer” starts things off briskly, but it isn’t long before things slow to a crawl. There is a distinct lack of drive toward the album’s middle section, likely resulting from the minimalist approach found on many of these tracks. While many songs are hauntingly beautiful (Dream, Impossible), others are campy (Woke Up This Morning) or simply irritating (Gone). Make no mistake; despite some standout material, this is a difficult record to enjoy in its entirety.
Perhaps it is largely the nature of the beast with this acoustically-focused album, but the vocal performance delivered by Martsch on Now You Know has an immediacy noticeably absent from nearly everything in the BTS back catalog. This truly is an intimate performance. Never before (or since, for that matter) has Doug sounded so fragile, so fallibly human. Some dismiss his voice as high-pitched, whiney, nasally, etc., and they wouldn’t necessarily be wrong. However, once you make it past the surface you find a very earnest performer, totally capable conveying complex emotions through song. Despite some miscues, Doug Martsch’s foray into solo acoustic work is pretty damn good, and a must for any Built To Spill fan. So now you know.