Built to Spill – Ancient Melodies of the Future

Built to Spill
Ancient Melodies of the Future

After just two listens of Built to Spill’s Ancient Melodies of the Future I turned off the stereo and opted for a microwave cooking of cheese ravioli. Did Ancient Melodies not interest me when Built to Spill’s other releases made sweet love to me an average of three times a week? Well, sort of. I was thoroughly hungry at the time. And songs like “Strange,” “Happiness,” “Fly Around My Pretty Little Mess,” and “The Weather” stood out as some of the most melodic tunes Doug Martsch has ever penned. But the others seemed somewhat tiring and lacking the hooks that pick you and make you break down in dance. And it’s not that the songs are lacking depth. Ancient Melodies has more “stuff” going on than ever before. And that may be part of the problem. The listener has trouble knowing what to sink his or her teeth into. The guitar hook in “Center of the Universe” from 1999’s Keep it Like a Secret is so unbelievably catchy that it makes you both shiver and cry inside. Nothing of this nature will be found here. So is Ancient Melodies one big, boring disappointment? No.
The songs are more straightforward, as on 1994’s There’s Nothing Wrong With Love, but, again with a lot more going on. The massive build-ups and direction changes found on 1997’s Perfect From Now On and to a certain extent on Keep it Like a Secret are absent; the average song length is four minutes. The songs are loud but less rock-y in most cases. “Alarmed” and “Trimmed and Burning” are the most straightforward rock songs to be found here. The synth-laden opus, “Alarmed,” starts off slow and dreamy (Doug can be pretty dreamy with his mysteriously high-pitched voice), building up to a climax of electric guitars and Qausi’s Sam Coomes’ trademark Rocksichord. “Trimmed and Burning” is loud from the start. The atmosphere the song creates would provide the perfect soundtrack to an action scene out of Blade Runner. The album opener, “Strange,” and closer, “The Weather,” feel connected by both their rare beauty and leisurely pace. Sam Coomes also lent his Midas hands to these tracks, give them a Quasi feel, but not making them sound like Quasi songs. The assistance from Sam Coomes is invaluable.
The vocal approach on “The Host” gives the song a Perfect from Now On flavor. The vocals tend to drive the song, rather than the guitars. You’ll be singing the “but why am I / so why should I” lyrics rather than humming the tune. “In Your Mind” is perhaps the most intriguing song of Built to Spill to be found in their entire catalogue. The song opens with an acoustic guitar and Doug Martsch splattering paragraphs of prose in a period of only 80 seconds, before breaking into the yelling chorus. The Middle Eastern-twinge comes from Caustic Resin’s Brett Netson contributing with a thumb piano, an instrument that is thousands of years old. Maybe this explains the album’s title. The lyrical content and magnitude of this song seem somewhat advanced for Built to Spill. I simply cannot believe Doug when he says that most of his lyrics are nonsense and inspired by flipping through dictionaries. The opening verse of “In Your Mind” thoroughly disproves this statement of Doug’s in my book:
“The symptoms of our getting older / the problems we say we don’t mind / and most of us never get over the memories mingled with lies / the incidence gave a confession that no one’s allowed to forget / I don’t want to give the impression that predestination is set / and distance will increase the danger with certainties never enjoyed / regarded as equal yet stranger / regard then embrace then destroy / observing the process will change it / and afterwards even if you subconsciously rearrange it / it doesn’t seem any less true / the remnants of thought disappearing / and even transcending concern / disturbing but somehow endearing / in addition, to never unlearned / and no one can tell me to listen / and no one can tell me what’s right / ’cause nobody has my permission / and no one can see in your mind.”
Martsch’s lyrics generally don’t lend themselves to being transcribed in paragraphs. But Ancient Melodies of the Future holds some surprises not even buried in the epic Perfect from Now On. However, there are two songs on the album that never seem to have the punch that the others either have from the start or eventually have after repeated listens. Songs seven and eight, “Don’t Try” and “You Are,” simply are not very memorable. Yet they are not bad songs. “Don’t Try” feels very one-dimensional, relying on layers and layers of guitars and sounds. And “You Are” is actually quite beautiful when in the act of listening to it. But when you are at work and bored, it will not pop in your head like “Strange” will over and over. Phil Ek’s superb production does, however, make these songs acceptable. Luckily, these two not-so-special songs are sandwiched by two of the most instantly enjoyable songs on the record. “Happiness” starts off with a her-hyuck slide, before jumping into a rock song that is oh-so danceable. It’s the feel good hit of the summer! “Fly Around My Pretty Little Mess” would fit nicely into the track listing of There’s Nothing Wrong With Love as it arranged rather simply, and never dawdles. Like “Happiness,” it too is good to listen to when driving through midwestern cornfields.
While Built to Spill’s latest may be disappointing at first, it is sure to grow on you if proper listening time is allotted. You do remember Perfect from Now On, do you not? The cheese ravioli served its purpose, but it wasn’t enough to keep me from going back to Ancient Melodies of the Future for another listen. And another and another.