This past Tuesday, I had the pleasure of seeing Built to Spill in concert. The Idaho rockers had a hand in the creation of alternative rock back in the 1990s along with Pavement, Nirvana, and Sonic Youth.
Frontman Doug Martsch experimented with layering noisy guitar chords and alternative tunings to create 1990s classics like “Perfect From Now On” and “Keep It Like A Secret.” Martsch is 44 now, but he and the rest of the band proved they still know how to rock after all these years.
They opened with the beautiful “Velvet Waltz,” a song I didn’t even expect them to play, much less open with. That song showcases the sound layering that made Built to Spill so famous in a sublime way. They continued with the punky “You Were Right,” an ode of sorts to the classic rock Martsch grew up on.
The band did an excellent job of mixing their early pop cuts like “Reasons” and “Joyride” with longer, more experimental songs like “Untrustable.” Martsch sounded as polished as ever on guitar, and his distinctive vocal whine hasn’t lost much intensity as he has aged. It was a great rock show.
It got me to thinking about the present state of rock and roll. The seminal genre that kickstarted popular music as we know it is struggling right now.
Before I dive in to this, I need to define what I call “rock and roll.” It’s literally impossible, as is categorizing any kind of music, but I’ve come up with a very loose, very broad definition.
Rock and roll started with the guitar, bass and drums. That’s still the core group of instruments that, along with vocals, we can call rock and roll. Other instruments, like piano, strings and horns, are often featured. But for me, rock and roll should be based on those three core instruments, especially the guitar.
With the exception of two brief uses of a cowbell, Built to Spill only used those three instruments on Tuesday. But let’s remember that they mostly played songs that are 15-plus years old. I love the band, and I loved the show, but they haven’t really demonstrated any innovation since 1999’s masterful “Perfect From Now On.”
It seems to me that Martsch and the band know this. Out of the 15 songs they played (excluding two covers), only four were from their albums after 1999. They played two each from 2006’s “You In Reverse” and 2009’s “There Is No Enemy.” These two albums, while they have their highlights, are generally considered to be two of the weakest in Built to Spill’s seven-album catalogue.
You’d think a band would play mostly songs from their latest album on a tour. I saw Bruce Springsteen last year after he released “Wrecking Ball,” and even though the Boss has an incredible body of work, he played a lot of songs from his newest album.
But not Built to Spill. Martsch has always seemed like an insecure rock star kind of guy, but it was clear from Tuesday’s setlist that he doesn’t have much confidence in his latest two releases. Could it be he thinks his band’s conventional rock sound has run its course? After all, what all can you possibly do with just guitar, bass, and drums?
The two openers also only used the three core instruments. The first, Genders, had some nice songs that were well-written. But they heavily borrowed sounds from other bands. I thought their rhythm section sounded like Yuck, their guitars sounded like Real Estate’s and their singer sounded like Victoria Legrand from Beach House.
The second opener, Slam Dunk, was a lot of fun. Again, they used only the core group. They had a goofy onstage persona and yelled a lot, which was really entertaining. But none of their songs were all that interesting. I got bored in the middle and looked at my phone for a while.
The truth is rock and roll has hit a brick wall. In indie music, its presence is catastrophically limited. There are some groups you could consider rock and roll. Arcade Fire have the driving rhythms and guitar riffs that characterize the music, but they are also heavily orchestral. Their new, electronic-influenced music would have Chuck Berry rolling in his grave if I called it rock and roll.
People call bands that have banjos and saxophones rather than electric guitars “indie rock,” but that’s not the type of music the genre was founded on. Bands like the Black Keys and the White Stripes are definitely rock, but their music is largely a throwback to blues sounds.
Speedy Ortiz released a wonderful album this year. Its sound is harder to pinpoint, but it again borrows from the alt rockers of the 1990s. Torres released a raw, emotionally powerful rock album at the very beginning of this year, but she’s from Nashville and borrowed songwriting techniques from the country singer-songwriters of that city.
Deerhunter are pretty clearly rock and roll, and their frontman Bradford Cox has a fresh style of songwriting. But they borrow heavily from the garage-rock sound of the Strokes. Emo/screamo revival bands like Touche Amore and The World Is A Beautiful place are trying to bridge the gap between mainstream and alternative, but it’s slow-going and has little potential for success.
The freshest rock release in recent memory came in the form of Deafheaven’s “Sunbather.” Their mesmerizing mix of shoegaze guitars, black metal drums and screaming vocals make a great concoction that is excellently executed and produced. It’s about the only rock release I can think of from the last five years that has lasting potential.
There are lots of bands that have decent songwriters who write nice melodies, but most of them borrow from earlier bands and sounds. That’s not enough to create really good music with lasting power. It’s not enough to be catchy, there has to be something new and different. And that’s something for which the rock and roll genre is at a loss right now.
Of course, rock and roll is based on borrowing aspects of music from other people. But for as long as the genre has existed, we’ve seen new, innovative sounds.
Bo Diddley was an experimental master of guitar. George Harrison, Jimi Hendrix, and Jimmy Page all had polished, perfected, and unpredictable guitar skills. Then Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo came along in the 80s and made the guitar sound like a totally different instrument. Only a few short years later Kevin Shields reinvents the instrument again.
Radiohead and Wilco both made strides in experimental music at the beginning of the 2000s, but they didn’t totally flip the genre on its head like those other guys did. It’s been a long time since we’ve seen anything truly new in rock and roll. And if Doug Martsch can’t figure it out, it will be very difficult for anyone else to get out of the rut.
I don’t consider myself a classicist by any means. I like music new and old. But I’ve realized that for at least the past year of my life, most of the rock and roll I’ve listened to has been from before 2000. There just isn’t interesting stuff happening right now.
I don’t know what to tell people to do with their guitars to sound new. I don’t have the answers. But I do know that the situation is dire and only getting worse. It would be a shame to see this great music go away, but maybe it has run its course. It seems to be the beginning of the end.