Doug Martsch has made a career out of not surprising his fans too much. Over the course of a half-dozen albums and a handful of lineup changes, he and his band, Built to Spill, have kept sight of most of the characteristics that made people like them in the first place. Martsch's soaring, wounded-sounding falsetto is still the centerpiece of the songs and still the perfect complement to his always-inventive guitar-playing; he still writes pleasantly meandering songs that blur the lines between indie and classic rock. That's not to say that Built to Spill keeps remaking the same album, though, because each new release gives fans what they've come to expect while revealing new facets of this consistently underrated band.
Built to Spill's fine new album, Ancient Melodies of the Future, finds Martsch working on more concise songwriting. Whereas on some of the band's past albums, six- and eight-minute songs were the norm (and their live album featured a 20-minute version of Neil Young's "Cortez the Killer"), the 10 tracks on Ancient Melodies clock in at just under 40 minutes. Shorter songs don't necessarily mean faster songs, though; there are more than enough mid- to slow-tempo rockers to go around. Indeed, aside from the pounding electric piano (provided by Sam Coomes of Quasi) on the opening track, "Strange," the entire first half of the album is made up of lighter-waving, concert-ending anthems. Things pick up, though, with "Happiness," which features a Modest Mouse-style overdriven rhythm section and slide-guitar straight off Led Zeppelin's Physical Graffiti, and the second-to-last track, wherein Built to Spill presents its poppiest song ever, the Merseybeat-ish "Fly Around My Pretty Little Miss." Despite this slightly uneven pacing, the album holds together nicely, thanks in large part to Martsch's vocals, which are raw and emotional without seeming affected. It's doubtful that Ancient Melodies of the Future will win Built to Spill legions of new fans -- they're still a bit too weird for mainstream radio -- but Martsch and company haven't let their loyal followers down yet, which should ensure a long career for the reluctant guitar hero.
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