One of the more interesting aspects of the Compact Disc’s nineties and zeroes heyday was the hidden track that would often appear after
the final billed song. Following a silent gap of anything from a few seconds to half an hour, the music kicked back in to reveal a brooding
instrumental (Placebo), a punk cover of a Kate Bush track (China Drum) or thirty minutes of blasting speaker static (The Flaming Lips).
Such extra-curricular dicking around, while fun for the hardened fan, isn’t something that translates to our time of digital music, today’s world
of streaming everything that has ever existed from a ‘cloud’. Nor does anyone want their music player to shuffle onto a lengthy period of
soundlessness or unlistenable messing around. Nowadays bands tend to reserve their playful moments for free download giveaways or ‘deluxe’
reissues. The time of the hidden bonus is over and little lamented.
But return to those albums of twenty years ago and you won’t find a better secret track than the one hiding at the end of Built to Spill’s 1994
collection ‘There’s Nothing Wrong With Love’, issued here on the City Slang label. Spoiler alert: it’s a prank, but a good one. This in-joke had
me fooled all ends up until my associate, DJ Nutsac, pointed out that the supposed ‘sneak preview’ contained snippets from a bunch of songs
which were deliberately dreadful. There’s the OTT country ballad, the punk metal churn where the only lyrics are “kick you in the head”, some
muffled proto-landfill indie and a kind of anthropomorphised cartoon animal squeaking: “Look for the record with me on the cover!” It wouldn’t
make any kind of sense in a shuffle, but in the context of an epilogue to one of the finest records of the year, these eighty-two seconds are comedy gold.
In fact, the only problem comes as the bonus feature can’t help but showcase frontman Doug Martsch’s inherent gift for melody and absolute mastery of the guitar. Martsch already
had history before this, his second album under the Built to Spill monicker, having released a couple of records with Treepeople and teamed up with Beat Happening’s Calvin
Johnson for two releases as The Halo Benders, whereby Martsch’s wavery keen perfectly complemented Johnson’s deep baritone in a uniquely quirky confection.
These days contemporary music is more about second-rate Dylan impersonation (hello to the bloke from Hiss Golden Messenger! And The
War on Drugs!). But singing in a high-pitched manner, a lot like Neil Young, was very much the done thing back in the mid-nineties, with
Wayne Coyne, J Mascis and Jason Lyttle all taking Young as their inspiration. Martsch’s loose Built to Spill collective were big proponents of
Neil’s style, coming together in Boise, Idaho in late 1992 and releasing their meandering debut ‘Ultimate Alternative Wavers’ the following year,
a record with a very funny cover and one standout in the classic slacker anthem ‘Nowhere, Nothin’ Fuckup’.
But when it came to their next effort Doug found his songwriting groove, offering compositions which were succinct and intensely hummable, ‘There’s Nothing Wrong With Love’
remains Built to Spill’s most pop moment, a record that was reviewed favourably in the New Musical Express at the time, and one I took a punt on because I trusted the name on
the byline (yes kids, there was a time when decent journalists wrote for the NME and music lovers would pick up physical copies each week to find out what these experts had to
say – imagine!). From there the album’s popularity spread through my university and beyond while I was such a fan, I even sent that ‘SASE’ mentioned in the inlay to Seattle’s Up
Records and got myself a hard copy of the lyrics.
‘There’s Nothing Wrong With Love’ had exactly the producer it needed too, wunderkind Phil Ek who, being in his early twenties, was even younger than the band. Ek would do
wonderful work picking out their sound with pin-drop clarity, emphasizing vocal parts or guitars as appropriate, placing all the musical ingredients at the right level of prominence.
Little wonder Ek went on to a career producing the stadium-bothering likes of Fleet Foxes and Band of Horses.
It’s a wonderfully sequenced record too, beginning with an awaking Martsch describing what happens ‘In The Morning’ when he is “feeling half
right”, signature changes in a choppily tuneful blizzard that slows, squalls then stops suddenly. This is like a vivid dream, relinquishing itself into
the album’s conscious whole, a multipart prequel where “today is flat beneath the weight of the next day, next day, next day…”
A filmic flash-cut takes us into ‘Reasons’, a romantic expression of desire (“You arrive, and I’m on fire.”) juxtaposed with warm guitar ooze amid a song that somehow manages to be
avowedly catchy despite its medium-pace, a quiet-loud declaration of love everlasting: “Stay with me until I die – there’s nothing else I wanna try.”
Even more poptastic, third track ‘Big Dipper’ would surely have been the single had tiny labels produced such things then, a jangly epic that
captures youthful excitement in a world of rollercoasters and funfairs, its protagonist the kind of offbeat kid who believes the eponymous ride
is talking to him, or that his mind can change reality (“Jack thought it twice and thought that that that made it true – some brains just work that
way.”) This surreal story is given heft by exquisite playing, the rhythm section of Caustic Resin’s Brett Nelson on bass and comically named
drummer Andy Capps underpinning the front and centre guitars as multiple false endings loom.
From here everything turns darker if no less compelling, with cello augmenting the core trio on several tracks including the wonderful ‘Car’, a song that moves from soulfully
understated to an explosion of sound, fuzz and soloing with Martsch crying “I wanna see movies of my dreams”. ‘Fling’ is an acoustic lament, the lyrics unlisted on my sheet
(were they too personal for the writer to share?), touching on rebound lust and how long it takes “to come, to the memory of her” in a brief yet beautiful 153 second running time.
As the record progresses the influence of Martsch’s muse Karena becomes apparent. ‘Cleo’ is a co-write, apparently from the perspective of their unborn child (“Strange that I’m a
human being, living in the womb, running out of room, have to come out soon, have to meet the sun and moon…”) while latterly, ‘Israel’s Song’ encompasses the coming of age of
that eponymous boy, derived from a poem written by the couple’s distaff side.
Elsewhere come sweet-sounding moments and indelible melodies, the festive epiphany of ‘Twin Falls’ where our hero recalls a vision of
some girl “beneath a parachute, I saw her without shoes”. As he gets older and leaves town, the main character only sees his childhood love
in dreams, while ‘Dystopian Dream Girl’ hankers for someone to love in the worst of all worlds, a collage-y mishmash with a huge chorus
where: “If it came down to your life or mine I’d do the stupid thing, and let you keep on living.”
Set against these radio-friendly ditties all ages will love are a couple of noisier, more crepuscular moments, reflecting Martsch’s burgeoning
interest in guitar jams. ‘Some’ is a crescendo-y six minutes of grinding riffs where the band really cut loose while closer ‘Stab’ walks the line between moving and the urge for
dirge, a more limited sonic palette showcasing lyrics about failed violence and disillusion with the whole endeavour, something Martsch had been pursuing on for half a decade
by this point. It’s a composition that ends on a paradoxically uplifting sentiment: “I wrote a song, it was slow and long, I wrote the words and the music wrong, but life goes on,
and on and on and on….” Then a final freakout to end before that bonus track undermines any serious intent and we’re done, in little more than forty-five minutes.
All subsequent Built to Spill records would be longer, more psychedelic, and have expectation heaped upon them. Indeed, ‘There’s Nothing Wrong With Love’ was the last time Martsch
could record without having to please a waiting audience, the final occasion in which (as he told Magnet Magazine in 2014) “everything was kind of free and fun”. You can hear it in a
relaxed set of songs that manages to be both commercial and alternative, influenced by the frontman’s guitar heroes but very much its own thing. TNWWL was a great success on its own
terms, and is often mentioned as a top pick of the nineties; by Spin magazine and others. This is the set that saw major labels come a-courting, with Martsch able to make his living from
music to this day thanks to the recognition it brought him.
Of course, such attention was a mixed blessing. The weight of expectancy saw Martsch scrap work twice on his next release, before
‘Perfect From Now On’ finally came out to near-universal acclaim. This third BTS release is noticeably more forbidding, complicated
and opaque than the virtual greatest hits collection of TNWWL, but many prefer its layered complexity and painstaking guitarwork.
Reacting to what came before once again, 1999’s ‘Keep It Like A Secret’ would see a partial return to straightforward pop (albeit with a denser sound) while the trio of
albums released by Built To Spill in the zeroes display a captivating mix of original melodies, quirky lyrics and six-string grandstanding.
But as a time capsule of an era long-gone, when Martsch had little to lose as a singer-songwriter, expressing his creativity and the contentment of a newly-settled personal
life, ‘There’s Nothing Wrong With Love’ is without peer. And there’s a lovely recreation of the back cover’s smiley-face table on the CD itself. You don’t get that kind of
thematically apt, gladness-invoking touch with downloads do you?
‘There’s Nothing Wrong With Love’ is available secondhand or digitally, at all the usual stockists, for a reasonable price.