There Is No Enemy, the seventh album by American rockers Built To Spill, will not be the UK’s most eagerly anticipated release of 2010. Instead, it limps apologetically into British retailers via an indie label, several months after its US release last year through Warners.
That’s not to say that the quartet are viewed with contempt in the UK. Built To Spill are much loved by a small but fervent band of indie aficionados over here. Their London gigs are always well attended. Nevertheless, it can’t be denied that Built To Spill have been almost comically under-promoted in the UK over the last 10 years.
This isn’t a tale of simple injustice, though. It’s quite easy to see why they’ve never built up a groundswell of critical and commercial success in this country. Although Built To Spill’s sound recalls that of a variety of much-lauded American acts like Pavement, The Flaming Lips and Dinosaur Jr, they don’t possess any of those acts’ attention-grabbing idiosyncrasies. Instead, Built To Spill boast straightforward musical qualities that have always seemed to go down better in America than in the UK: good tunes, excellent musicianship and an incompatibility with any obvious ‘scene’.
But, no matter. It’s likely that the band’s UK-based fans will have lapped up There Is No Enemy via import or the world wide web a while back anyway. And what those fans have heard will have sounded comfortingly familiar: complex yet catchy indie rock songs distinguished by chief songwriter Doug Martsch’s intergalactic guitar and keening, feather-light voice. As such, it’s not a bad place for Built To Spill novices to start. Those listeners who are especially pressed for time might want to isolate track two, Hindsight, for immediate attention: it distils all that’s great about the band into a concise three-and-a-half minute burst of carefree pop joy.
That’s not to say There Is No Enemy is the sound of a band resting upon its laurels. In an interview from last year, Martsch claimed that the album was partly influenced by soul music. This hasn’t manifested itself in any overt Stax or Motown pastiches, but listen closely and it’s apparent that Martsch wasn’t talking complete nonsense. Nowhere Lullaby could be described as a soul song of sorts – when married to the track’s slow dance-friendly tempo, Martsch’s fragile, pained voice develops a lovely, almost Al Green-like quality.
The album’s lyrics display a certain soulfulness, too: Martsch’s words have never been this emotionally naked. Whereas historically he’s been content mainly to trade in deliberately mangled platitudes (“There’s a bad bone in my body…and I would hurt a fly”, he sang on 1997’s I Would Hurt A Fly), he spends much of There Is No Enemy describing fraught emotions in relatively transparent terms: “Stay out of my nightmares, stay out of my dreams / You’re not even welcome in my memories,” he sings on Things Fall Apart; elsewhere, the jaunty music of Planting Seeds does its best to hide its self-eviscerating words – “The first place my mind goes is where I never want it to / Like where it hurts the most”.
There are other musical tricks we’ve not heard from Built To Spill before, like the horns on Life’s A Dream and Things Fall Apart, or the unselfconsciously pretty “la la la la”-ing backing vocals on the former. But these subtle innovations aren’t entirely ‘adult’ in nature: the brisk Pat serves as a mid-point palate cleanser and it might be the speediest, punkiest thing the band have ever recorded.
Fans of Built To Spill’s jammier, more freewheeling side (best heard on 1997’s masterpiece, Perfect From Now On) will be sated by the guitar freak-out in the middle of Things Fall Apart. But, overall, this is one of Built To Spill’s tightest, least sprawling works – the looseness of its predecessor, 2006’s You In Reverse, isn’t in evidence here.
At the risk of sounding like Amazon’s automated recommendations page, listeners who enjoy acts such as The Flaming Lips, Pavement, Dinosaur Jr, Superchunk and Neil Young would also enjoy Built To Spill. No, really, they would. And There Is No Enemy would be a pretty good place for those listeners to begin their investigations.