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Still Perfect

Built to Spill, Rams Head Live, Sept. 24

Jefferson Jackson Steele
Built To Spill Describe Eternity At Rams Head Live.

By Robbie Whelan | Posted 10/1/2008

Built to Spill, Rams Head Live, Sept. 24

The historical record is fuzzy as to when the tradition of bands performing old albums in their entirety actually began, but certainly it's in fashion now. This past July, three of the Pitchfork Music Festival's headliners were Public Enemy, Mission of Burma, and Sebadoh, each offering track-by-track re-creations of canonical records. Maybe it says something about the availability of quality new music today, or perhaps we now just have enough free time to re-experience the indie-rock past alongside more recent stuff. Whatever doubts might arise about the prescribed format, however, it was thrilling to see Built to Spill relive 1997 at the Ram's Head last week.

Doug Martsch and crew played the entirety of their major-label debut, Perfect From Now On--plus a few encores (full disclosure: I was pulled away from the show by an emergency a tad early)--complete with John McMahon's live cello parts, which so deftly added texture to the original LP and, though understated, were just as dramatic here. And the most striking thing about the show wasn't that the band appeared incredibly comfortable sorting through its old material, but that it could give it such a fresh, energetic treatment.

Perfect is a heady album, with droning guitar layers, waltz-time songs that lend themselves to cymbal-heavy drum parts, and tortured lyrics that sound best when moaned. All of it--the skronky, three-layered guitar assault, the cello descant (which cut through surprisingly clearly), the vocal wail--seemed to build to a suitable high point on "Untrustable/Part 2 (About Someone Else)," the album's closer. Martsch sings with his eyes closed and the entire right side of his body convulsing in time with the rhythm. And for all the song's teenage poetry about trust issues and how "god is whoever you're performing for," there was an interesting dynamic between the youngness of the song's lyrical posture and the maturity of the music, which made it seem fitting to see the graybearded Martsch, approaching middle age, sing it all in the now. You got the impression that the climax, where he howls, "What are you gonna do?/ Can you feel the darkness shining through?/ What are you gonna do?" was, if anything, more polished than back in the grungy '90s, and all the better for it.

On other tunes, such as the plodding "Stop the Show," the live-show advantage was in seeing that the band can actually cover all these parts and handle a range of volumes without studio help. After a poorly mixed opening set by the Meat Puppets, which had them sounding like they were performing inside a hollow log, it was worrisome to see what the sound guy would do with Built to Spill. But the band's quiet moments were immaculate--you could hear each part individually and perfectly, where it was coming from, and even a few handclaps from the crowd--and its loudest ones were unmuddied. The end of "Velvet Waltz" descended into an intense, noisy jam that was mesmerizing because of what a showpiece it was for Martsch and his two guitarist sidekicks, Jim Roth and Brett Netson.

It was a pity that so few came to this show. The Rams Head balconies were roped off, and the place didn't fill up until just before the headliners began, with still plenty of elbow room. It was a pity, at the very least, because this show was a far cry better than staying at home with a pair of headphones and your original Perfect CD.

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