A few years short of a decade ago (!!@#!?), Built to Spill singer Doug Martsch sung, “now we can’t even touch it / afraid it will fall apart” on “Carry the Zero,” one of the highlights of the band’s then-new album, Keep It Like a Secret. Although the rest of the song makes it clear Martsch is talking about the painful breakup of a relationship, the line also perfectly describes the state of the band after Keep it Like a Secret. That album was certainly their most critically acclaimed to date. It was also responsible for widening their fan base exponentially, due to its pop sensibilities, big guitar sound, economical song lengths and unique structure changes that avoided the rut of the simple verse chorus verse. Remember the first time you listened to …Secret’s “Time Trap” and the instrumental tension that built over the first part of the song was released in a slow sauntering reggae beat? Or the way “Temporary Blind,” one of the most low-key songs on the album, explodes in a joyous guitar burst right before it ends? How could Built To Spill possibly replicate moments of sheer brilliance?
I differ from most critics who assailed the band’s answer to this question, 2001’s Ancient Melodies From The Future, and called it a creative retreat from the heights of Keep It Like A Secret. I will agree that the album was not as grand in scope, but this was very much intentional. The songs were consciously smaller and more personal. Whether lashing out in the confrontational, psychedelic, “In My Mind” or cooing gently in the beautiful and near-perfect love song “The Weather,” the album sidestepped the dilemma of what Built to Spill would do after recording a masterpiece. If they could release an album of songs as good as Ancient Melodies…, did it matter that it wasn’t a step forward from …Secret? And then four years passed. And there was no news from Built to Spill, save one brief tour in the summer of 2005 where the band played no new material.
And then, after song teasers, webzine prattle, and a bizarre album leak (involving samples from rapper Mike Jones being placed over each song), You In Reverse, Built to Spill’s follow-up to the follow-up to their masterpiece has been unveiled. And, in all honesty, the album is just not that good. While it is certainly a grower, as I can now get through an entire listen-through with only two or three uses of the “skip” button (usually “Gone,” “Wherever You Go” and “Mess With Time”), it neither contains the sweeping grandiosity of the band’s albums up to and including …Secret, nor the touching simplicity of Ancient Melodies… Here, neither the band’s songwriting nor musicianship shines through. It’s not that many of the songs are bad, but instead that most are straightforward and immensely boring.
While I applaud the band’s decision to return to “epic” style songwriting (save the two minute “Liar,” no other tracks on You in Reverse are less than four and a half minutes long), they simply don’t fill these songs with enough to justify their long lengths. Many of the songs, like those on Ancient Melodies…, fade out at their conclusion, giving them a sort of half-baked, unfinished sound that the band’s earlier catalog lacked. In all honesty, save the opening and closing cuts, there are no melodies that stick with me. I bob my head at the slowcore style of “Saturday,” and then forget its chord progression halfway through the next track.
The band has paid homage to Neil Young successfully on tracks like “Broken Chairs” from …Secret or their gargantuan cover of Young’s “Cortez the Killer,” on their live release. But You In Reverse’s “Wherever You Go” sounds less like a tribute and more like the band scraped the bare bottom of Young’s barrel for a song idea, came up with a derivative riff, and then repeated it, ad-naseum, until the inevitable fadeout. Whether the band is trying new things, like the Pink Floydish ending to “Gone” or recreating ideas they have successfully done before, like reggae syncopation that shows up on the horribly titled “Mess With Time,” the resulting songs often sound like excruciatingly unpracticed live jams, lacking any interesting ebb and flow or progression.
Marstch is still a guitar god, capable of making a solo sound both spontaneous and controlled, but these songs seem to be structured around the solos, not the other way around. Without the guitar solos, most of these songs would probably hover around three minutes in length. And because nearly every song on the album features such a solo, even these moments fail to rouse one from disinterest. Lyrically, the band is weaker than usual, to the point where missteps become obvious. “Some things never change / And nothing is going to change that” from “Conventional Wisdom” sounds rehashed and obvious. And Martsch’s grappling with humanity’s place in the world, a recurring lyrical topic, is given meager treatment like, “Mother Nature’s disposition / She don’t mind, she don’t care” in “Liar.” One other note must be made. While in most album reviews, I strive to mention the rhythm section of a band, here they are so anonymous and unexceptional. You in Reverse sounds like Doug Martsh’s album based upon his vision, not that of a band.
Of course, there are exceptions, songs that not only belong in the Built to Spill cannon, but will become highlights of it. Conveniently, the two tracks on the album that defy the mediocrity of the rest are opener “Goin’ Against Your Mind” and closer “The Wait.” The former is truly a monumental opener, starting out a raging fastly paced rock song, before the drums fade and one is left with just Martch’s mood setting drone over fuzzy guitar noise. The drums come back in and the song leaps over itself, placing solo over solo over solo until the listener is beaten with the most beautiful kind of noise, one that shows the power of Marstch’s guitar work. “The Wait” is an acoustic closer, similar to Ancient Melodies…’s “The Weather,” but while that song really was intended as an acoustic song, “The Wait” isn’t comfortable in it’s own mellow skin, and ends with a spiraling guitar solo. For only the second time on the album, the band sounds in sync and energized, with a commanding drum pattern and spiky rhythm guitar following the song to its close.
It is dangerous when a band takes 4 years of inactivity between releases, not only because fans’ expectations will be all the higher, but also because the possibility to over-think song ideas and themes is present. Looked at in the context of the band’s history, You In Reverse reeks of staleness. These songs sound like good ideas dragged out twice as long as they should be, with lyrics that sound overwrought and lightweight. Without the context of Built to Spill’s back catalog, You In Reverse is simply a meaty rock album that lacks enough highlights to justify its purchase. Save yourself eight bucks, download the first and last tracks from iTunes, and try to pretend the band released a two track EP mere months after Ancient Melodies, and that they can still effortlessly produce such transcendent music. If the band’s former mantra was not being able to touch their sound, for fear it would fall apart, “The Wait” offers a new one; “patience, patience, darling.” Patience, at this point, is what the band must hope its fans posses.
Crossed Keys – Saviors
Saviors shows the work of well-seasoned musicians finding new energy in old sounds
Philadelphia’s Crossed Keys are an interesting intersection between melodic hardcore and punk, taking an earnest approach to the sound that made its way from the underground in the late 90s and early 2000s. This relatively new outfit is the result of Kid Dynamite and Samiam in a blender- in the best way possible. The Kid Dynamite influence may be a given since Crossed Eyes features KD’s drummer Dave Wagenschutz, but the band’s pedigree also includes members of bands like Zolof the Rock & Roll Destroyer and The Curse, all backing the melancholic vocal work of frontman Joshua Alvarez (Halo of Snakes). So while Crossed Keys are somewhat new, its members have been cutting their teeth within their respective circles for years, and their new EP Saviors shows the work of well-seasoned musicians finding new energy in old sounds.
Saviors is backboned by the furious urgency and energy that Kid Dynamite showed through their history, but while Jason Shevchuk’s vocals were beautifully abrasive, Alvarez takes a more restrained, wistful approach to singing. Songs like the opening “Times of Grace” are musically up-tempo percussions and razor-sharp guitars, but are buoyed by Alvarez’s more melodic vocals. His vocals rest at a good place between Samiam’s Jason Beebout and that NYHC tone exhibited by bands like Token Entry and Grey Area. In songs like “R.J.A” and the closing title track, Crossed Keys find more success with their brand of blistering speed meets harmony- slowing down only for the kind of melancholic punk that made Samiam a noted name. While much of Saviors is built on pace, it wasn’t always this way for the band. In fact, their 2017 EP, I’m Just Happy That You’re Here, leans closer to Samiam than it does to Kid Dynamite (the song “Jeff Pelly vs. The Empire” is particularly fantastic), so there’s been an uptick of urgency with Saviors.
For fans of any of the aforementioned bands here, there is plenty to like with Crossed Keys and plenty to like in Saviors. It’s succinct, to the point, but filled with ample reflection and exploration that gives the EP depth and resonance. Any band that has found influence from Kid Dynamite is most certainly OK by us (this site is named after a KD song after all), but Crossed Keys does more than just tip their cap. This one’s a really good one, and worth your time.
Every last time: Revisiting Gameface’s “How Far Is Goodbye?”
A glorious sound of a time gone by
Southern California’s Gameface were always a band that seemed perfect just below the cusp. Their brand of pop-tinged punk was somewhere in between the melancholy driven emo of the early 1990s to what would become of radio-friendly punk bands evolving from the Jimmy Eat Worlds of the… world.
I loved this band. It was songs like “My Star” and “When You’ve Had Enough” that captured my attention. They didn’t fit in with the punk explosion of the mid-90s and had more melodic chops than those that remained in the underground with bands like Quicksand and Texas is the Reason (the latter being the most musically similar).
To this day, I count their track “How Far Is Goodbye?” as one I can listen to on any given day and still feel the same way about it as I did years ago. It’s a glorious sound of a time gone by, and Jeff Caudill, who has been the backbone of their songwriting since the beginning, has still got the chops his ilk can only dream of. There’s a tinge of melancholy that conjures up a certain sadness, a scene in a movie where the protagonist is making their exit into the distance as the scene closes. Something about the song, the sentiment, and the lyrics that always reminds of driving away while looking at the rear view mirror.
Five years ago Gameface released a new album, Now Is What Matters, an album that perfectly encapsulated their ability to write with emotion, melody, and magnetism that only a select few seem to possess. I interviewed frontman Jeff Caudill before the album came out to chat about the band, an interview I think still holds up. Caudill has been busy since then with a lot of solo material, while the band themselves have been releasing music sporadically (mostly singles) since 2014.
While their catalog is deep, there’s one song I keep coming back to, and that’s “How Far Is Goodbye?”. Originally released on the split 10″ vinyl with Errortype: 11 in 2000, the song received an update in 2018, which you can hear below.
Gameface photo from Gameface facebook page.