Review Summary: B-side, live, and single compilation from alt rock greats Built to Spill contains some of the bands best and overlooked early material
All it took was a listen to “Car” before I was hooked on Built to Spill. I don’t know whether it was the mesmerizing intro, fascinating lyrics or unique voice of Doug Martsch, but something about their sound just clicked with me. After listening to the entire album, I subsequently made every effort to hear the rest of their work. In hindsight, it was one of the best decisions I’ve made as far as listening to music goes. Content with the six studio albums, I felt the next step was to dig into the back catalogue, looking to find some gems in the b-side and outtake realm. Which leads to The Normal Years, Built to Spill’s collection of early singles, covers, live cuts and previously unreleased songs dedicated to the die hard fans of the Idaho group.
"The Normal Years" is comprised of songs recorded between 1992 and 1995 with a number of different lineups, vocalist Doug Martsch being the only consistently present member. The record captures Built to Spill in a less polished, more jagged sound reminiscent of their debut but still retaining their undeniably catchy nature with head nodding verses and shout along choruses. On the flip side, the band is prone to bursts of noisy, aimless solos and all out jam sessions which can understandably push a casual listener away (Some
and the Daniel Johnston cover Some Things Last A Long Time
The compilation excels when the songs are concise, which is not always the case for Built to Spill, as they proved with the ambitious "Perfect From Now On". Girl
is one of the bands best tunes, with simple and innocent lyrics sung in an energetic and carefree tone over fast clean chords complete with a surprising guitar solo to boot. Joyride
is similar to Girl in the sense that it’s extremely upbeat and youthful but the guitar is given much more free time to wander rounding out an excellent song. Shortcut
tries where the previous songs succeeded but doesn't quite reach their heights.
Those familiar with the band will recognize the titles Car
from their 1994 album "There’s Nothing Wrong with Love". Both versions are relatively different from their studio counterparts, with the former being slower pace and absent of violin and the latter turned into a live, instrumental sprawling mess of a song. "The Normal Years" opens and closes on positive notes. So & So & So & So From Wherever Wherever
is a well crafted song using the quiet verse/loud chorus formula effectively with some sloppy riffs overlapping delicately strummed guitar and a chorus of anthem like qualities. Terrible/Perfect
closes the record in a calm, hazy manner with Doug singing some of his most heart felt lyrics in “Once in a while there’s this girl I don’t know in my dreams, she reminds me of a lot of people, but she’s someone that I never seen, and she’s perfect” (the lyric is also found on "Lie for a Lie off their debut).
Whether Built to Spill are playing short and sweet catchy tunes or lethargic, dense epics, there is a certain charm to their style and Martsch’s sincere lyrics that it’s hard to dislike. "The Normal Years" contains some of the bands most underrated and certainly best material and would even be worth it for a casual fan, but for long time fans it’s highly recommended. Either "There’s Nothing Wrong with Love" or "Keep it Like A Secret" would be more accessible for newcomers, but even if it’s for those few standout tracks, The Normal Years is one of the better b-side compilations I've heard.