Built to Spill
Perfect From Now On
(Warner Bros.)

Built to Spill, who are good at many things, seem to be better at nothing than their ability to layer. And by that I don't mean producing some studio-phonic deluge as indigestible as a fiesta dip. Nope, what I'm talking about is the tasteful use of various instrumental sounds that have slightly different patterns, but which also harmonize. Built to Spill can be complex without getting as nebulous and remote as prog rock; can use contrasts in hush and roar without Led Zep bombast (i.e., switch on, switch off); and can allow grand lyrical themes to coalesce from small-scale, creepy components. This sort of craftsmanship is all too rare in this, the 10,000th day of the power chord and the adolescent rant. Not that there's anything wrong with dumb, simple rock, but when guitars ape bass, bass apes vocals, and vocals ape drums, the whole sound is so perfectly plumb and horizontal that you might as well be enjoying a drive in Iowa. At least Built to Spill gives us some scenery.

All of which is well-demonstrated in Perfect From Now On's opening track, "Randy Described Eternity." (Bear with me. I'm going to indulge in that least interesting of critical habits: breaking it down for you. It heightens the impression that this is some sort of science.) The song begins with a simple arpeggio, soon underscored with complementary bass and second guitar, and with quiet drums. The primary guitar fades out, but comes back now and then with minor variations and single notes. A third guitar arrives, distorted and pulsing, and the music builds for the vocals. The lyrics first suggest stoner sci-fi:

Every thousand years
This metal sphere
Ten times the size of Jupiter floats just a few
yards past the earth
You climb on your roof
And take a swipe at it
With a single feather, hit it once every
thousand years
'Til you've worn it down
To the size of a pea.

But the indulgence is revealed as the first half of a conversation: "Yeah, I say, that's a long time/ But it's only half a league/ In the place you're gonna be." (I think it's "league"; for all his inventiveness, and his lyrical preoccupation with the word "sound," BTS vocalist Doug Martsch tends to mumble.) No verse, no chorus -- just a microdrama rich in subtext.

If Perfect has any major flaw, it's only that the wealth of material wears you out after only four tracks (out of eight), and none of it rocks terribly hard. You start to yearn for simplicity and noise -- for power chords and bad poetry. But then again, there's no rule that says you have to listen to an album all the way through in one sitting, like I just did. Excuse me while I catch up on Veruca Salt.

-- Michael Batty

Sourmash: A Louisville Compilation
(X-Static/Boss Snake)
Compilations that go out of their way to try to define a regional scene always suffer from the same damn problem: The compilers forget to use editorial discretion. In their attempt to overcome inferiority complexes by showing a big-hearted civic inclusivity, or a "stunning" array of local diversity, or how many pals they've got in various aesthetically unrelated sub-scenes, they release an album that pogos from punk to swing to Vangelis and back. But it can't do a scene, rural or no, any good to look like a spastic, headless chicken.

Outside the very rocking and recently reissued Squirrel Bait and the fragile gloom of the Palace Brothers, most of us are probably not familiar with any Louisville "scene." Sourmash may or may not shed some light. Though the album has seven or eight songs that are neither good nor aesthetically related to the rest -- songs that shouldn't be included on this, or any other, CD -- there are 10 or so that could be clumped loosely together under the speculative genre of "retardo roots music." This genre hoists the primitive above all else, whether it's a shivering drunk blues song (King Kong's "Foggy Night Blues"), a Link Wray J.D. drag-strip stomp (Bodeco's "Wicked, Mean and Evil"), a scrawny, toothless backwoods bluegrass ditty (Palace Brothers' "Little Blue Eyes") a dissonant, plunking semisolo cafe folk ballad (Retsin's "Duck Out") or a pill-poppin', toe-tappin' country shuffle (Driftin' Luke's "The Tempest"). A lack of wanker two-handed fretwork here, a total absence of slick multitrack recording technology; just out-of-tune instruments recorded at various levels in basements by musicians with quite a bit more vision than precision.

And I confess I enjoy Sourmash's "Louisville" aesthetic -- its tottering, delicate incompetence. I also like the fact that it's played by folks with crazy hillbilly names like Wolf Knapp, Chukka Geisler, Byron Hoagland, Rankin Mapother, and Wink O'Bannon. In fact, O'Bannons (including Wink, Michael, and Tari) play on nearly every decent track on this CD -- a CD, I might add, produced by a certain Matthew O'Bannon, which may or may not be Wink's Christian name. Hmm ... is there a scene in them thar hills, or is the O'Bannon clan just pushing their editorial discretion?

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