February 14th 1999
Bis, Whistler and Built To Spill


In the Guardian Guide (the Valentines weekend issue...), Ben Marshall dismisses the new Bis single by saying that Amanda is like Hilda Ogden looking for things to clean, or something along those lines. He also reckons that they prove how wrong the tired old garage/punk axiom of 'anyone can do it' inevitably was/is. Which rather misses the point. Because Bis actually are rather good as a Pop act, and to say that they aren't is to admit that you are old, out of touch, and donít see the appeal of Billie. No, the trouble with Bis is that they can't decide whether they want to be a big cartoon Pop beast or be respected hipsters full of street-cred and trendy connections. The trouble with Bis is that they donít want to lose the respect of the 'underground' in their reach for the stars and, ironically, it is that very refusal to let go that makes any 'underground' care not a jot about whether they exist or not. The trouble with Bis is they think it's humorous or ironic or deeply clever and hip to make reference to banal 1980s Pop. The trouble with Bis is that they just miss the point.


Immeasurably better as much for their restraint as for their superior song writing skills are Wiiija label-mates Whistler, who with 'Don't Jump in Front of my Train' have made one of the best singles I've heard since, oh, the last Whistler single at least. It's unclear if the band name comes from the American painter James Abbott McNeill, but it makes a sensible parallel since the Whistler records evoke the same sense of muted beauty and pared down to the essentials of the paintings. And although I am not certain as to whether James Abbott McNeill ever played the harmonica, I'd wager that if he did, he could play with the same delight as this group do now. Of the songs themselves, well 'Don't Jump in Front of my Train', like Bis' 'Action and Drama' is a song that self-references the whole Pop/Rock lifestyle, but does so in a much more subtle and intelligent manner. Dealing with the sort of relationship I imagine someone having with, say, Thom Yorke, there's some great lines about the nature of self-destructive creativity and the dead-end of wallowing in that sole well of inspiration, best of which is 'every time I wound your pride, are you going to fake another suicide?' It's funny, but deeply sadly so. The other two tracks, 'For Real' and 'Tender Years', are similarly quietly symphonic delights, and all three go together to make a single that is as essential as the stars in the night, or the shards that cascade from a falling rocket.

built to spill

The first Built To Spill record I ever heard was a 7" called 'So And So So And So' on Saturnine records. I can't remember the year, but it must have been around 1991/92 or so when I was buying a lot of American 7" singles. What I do remember is that I hated the record, and although it still sits somewhere in my house, I have no real desire to search it out to listen again, despite the fact that the latest Built To Spill album, the recently released Keep It Like A Secret (City Slang) has been one of my most played records of the past month. It seemed to me that with that long unheard single, Built To Spill had taken the most wilfully obscure aspects of contemporary American Rock such as Pavement and fashioned as difficult and obtuse a sound as possible. Nothing wrong with that per se, of course, but what I find so appealing now about the current Built To Spill record is that, again, there is a strong scent of 'classic' American Alternative Rock, but this time with the focus being on tunes and melody and feeling rather than being just on difficult texture. The sound is pretty simple; scathing, spiralling guitars and snappy drums colouring songs that arc for the sky. It does all the things you expect, it does them with a gusto that is to be applauded, and although Doug Martsch's voice gets to irritate on occasion, at least it's a voice that is individual and not one lost within the murk of passionless drudgery that too often accompanies Rock sounds. There's some great Pop moments on the record too; 'Center of the Universe' shimmies and lopes on off-centre ellipses, 'Sidewalk' has a delightful guitar refrain that echoes a cleaner version of the best J Mascis of old, 'You Were Right' is a terrific trawl through lyrical clichés from '70s Rock, whilst 'Temporarily Blind' is simply pure Swell. Unlike Swell, however, Built To Spill do not often enough display the darker underbelly that might take them beyond the realm of immediately appealling Rock that Keep It Like A Secret undoubtdely is, into grounds of emotive, emotionally challenging atmosphere. Which is a shame. So, not the 'masterpiece' it has been claimed to be, but certainly a fine sound, and one that is immeasurably better than the shambles of that Saturnine 7" of years gone by. Recommended.

© Alistair Fitchett 1999.