Thursday, May 14, 2009

Week 50: "The Plan" by Built to Spill

We are coming up on the end of the 52 Songs in 52 Weeks Essay Project that I began on June 1, 2008. After this week’s entry, I will have only two songs left to write about. (Well, I will probably also stick in a bonus song as an encore.) With the end of this essay project coming, I’ve been thinking about what weekly feature I will put on my blog beginning this June. Right now I am thinking about a “List of the Week” feature. If I decide to go this route, my first list might just include 104 songs that I could have just as easily written about for the 52 songs in 52 weeks project.

Probably the greatest injustice of these essays is that I will only write about one song by the band Built to Spill, which happens to be one of my favorite bands. I’ve seen them perform live five times. Three times they were amazingly good. Twice they disappointed. (At one show, front man Doug Martsch had a wicked cold; at another show they had serious equipment malfunctions.)

However, I will always remember the first time I saw them. They were playing a show at the Reed College student union. I was walking home from the library at about 11:00 on a Friday night (which says a lot about my experience in college) and wandered into the union and managed to catch the second half of Built to Spill’s show. I had never heard of them before, but their amazing guitar work blew me away.

Since forming in 1992, the band has released six original albums in addition to a compilation of B-Sides, a greatest hits album, and a live album. Doug Martsch, a gentle giant, is the band’s lead vocalist and lead guitarist. Their drummer, Scott Plouf previously played with the Spinanes. The band originally hailed from Boise, Idaho and has made their home throughout the Pacific Northwest. Their style features lots of guitar distortion, catchy hooks, and long jams. On stage they have more pedals than the Indianapolis 500.

Their signature ending to a concert is to play a 20 to 30 minute version of one of their songs with the majority of that time consisting of traded guitar solos which evolve and devolve and evolve again only to disintegrate into a mixture of feedback, static, and loops. At one show I attended, the band ended with all of the guitarists kneeling on the ground, their guitars laid to the side, working the various knobs of the pedals and amps. The drummer eventually got up and left the stage. Doug Martsch had recorded a segment of a guitar solo onto an old-fashioned tape loop which he manipulated the speed of while his fellow guitarists left the stage. Finally, the sound guy cut the energy and Martsch began packing up his gear. Built to Spill’s live album contains two of their signature 20 minute tracks, a version of their song “Broken Chairs” and a cover of Neil Young’s “Cortez the Killer.”

“The Plan” is the first song on both Built to Spill’s live album and their amazing 1999 release Keep It Like A Secret. The song is little more than an introduction for the greatest guitar soloing I have ever heard. The version on their live album is impeccable. As Built to Spill goes to the solo portion of the song, one of the guitarists begins with a warped solo by manipulating the strings of the guitar below the frets and almost on top of the pickups. The solo is eventually passed to Martsch who starts off grinding away in the lower register and slowly climbing up the scale to hit a series of soaring and triumphant high notes. He doesn’t stop there as he continues the solo, breaking it down and jerking the song into a new rhythm.

There is no version available on YouTube that quite matches the version of the Live album, but these two videos (first, second) are good places to start.