Review Summary: Boasting a great set list and quality sound production, Built to Spill's live album encapsulates everything that makes them so revered.
The first time I saw Built to Spill live remains one of my fondest concert memories. It was my first show being legal age, and three friends and I, drunk off excitement and beer, planted ourselves at the front of the stage. For the rest of the evening it felt like the world consisted of just the four of us and the indie rock greats, that blissful noise blasting through those deafening speakers so close to our ears. It was afterwards, on the way home, that my friend mentioned how during the set he looked behind us for a moment and observed a motionless audience, in stark contrast to our animated swaying and singing. In hindsight, I could see how watching Built to Spill perform could put one in a sort of trance. I’ve seen them two more times since, and on both occasions, less drunk and slightly further away, I’ve been utterly captivated in a way that was somewhat different than that first time. His demeanor impenetrable, eyes closed, head bobbing, front man Doug Martsch seems to be his own world up there. Not in an unengaged or off-putting way, but in a way that makes sense, as if he must go to that place in order to extract what makes the songs so potent.
For whatever reason, I’ve never really ventured into live album territory outside of a select few. I’ve attended my fair share of concerts, and maybe I was content with leaving live music for those experiences. But when I found a used copy of Built to Spill’s only live release at a campus vinyl and CD sale I never hesitated to pick it up, and it was a wise decision. Released in 2000, it’s comprised of nine songs recorded the previous year during the ‘Keep It Like a Secret’ US tour. Despite the seemingly diminutive set list, the album runs over seventy minutes and it’s an eclectic compilation. Built to Spill have a knack for crafting warm, pop-infused alt rock songs but they also won’t shy away from a heavier, more layered and grand approach as they showcased on 1997’s ‘Perfect from Now On’. Ranging from the staples to deeper cuts, the succinct to the ambitious, the melodic to the dissonant, ‘Live’ contains the best of both worlds.
There’s ‘Car’, which is about as perfect as an indie rock song can be, tweaked here a little from its studio counterpart. Also included is the wonderfully infectious ‘The Plan’, the brooding, paranoid ‘I Would Hurt a Fly’ and a trio of covers. ‘Virginia Reel Around the Fountain’ is a Halo Benders number (another band Martsch was in along with Beat Happening’s Calvin Johnson) while ‘Singing Sores Make Perfect Swords’ is originally by Love as Laughter. Both of are worthy additions here, but it’s the sprawling rendition of Neil Young’s classic ‘Cortez the Killer’ that alone makes it worth the price of admission. Doug and co do justice to the original as they sweep the listener away in a dense, atmospheric soundscape of haunting electric guitars and hypnotic vocals for over twenty minutes, the latter half being entirely instrumental. It’s quite a feat that Built to Spill can make their live album one third covers and completely get away with it. The album’s other giant, ‘Broken Chairs’, is another journey, one even more meandering and chaotic, marked by bursts of scathing, improvisational guitar, feedback and lingering stretches of almost complete silence, closing the album in style.
I haven’t listened to enough live albums to say how this stacks up in that world, but I can say that being late for class the day I found this was totally worth it. Built to Spill are at the top of their game here, and with a great set list and excellent production, it’s a welcome compliment to any fans collection while in turn being very capable of indoctrinating new ones.