This article originally ran in 2015, but we’re dusting it off for Doug Martsch’s birthday on September 16th.
Ever felt overwhelmed by an artist’s extensive back catalog? Been meaning to check out a band, but you just don’t know where to begin? In 10 Songs is here to help, offering a crash course and entry point into the daunting discographies of iconic artists of all genres. This is your first step toward fandom. Take it.
There’s something cagey about Doug Martsch, and by extension Built to Spill; a complexity lying underneath a calm surface. His head sways back and forth softly, those iconic nasal vocals loosen esoteric, terse, emotionally resonant lines, and his hand ranges across the fretboard as if with its own mind. Built to Spill songs often seem effortless, yet they’ve been brainy, toothsome touchstones for indie rock fans for over two decades.
No matter how timid or reticent Martsch may be in person, his songs make deep connections to other people. That’s evident in the conversational way the guitars weave among each other, his various collaborations, and the fluid progression of Built to Spill despite the band’s many lineup changes. The outfit’s music speaks candidly with the history of rock ‘n roll as well: They’re not afraid to cover the legends or to poke fun at them.
While every Built to Spill song has insane guitar proficiency at its core, that belies the diversity of their catalog: sprawling epics and tightly written gems, sweet sincerity and knowing quips, wild fury and gentle dreams. They’re a band that breathes music, both in and out, to a degree that few others can claim.
Time to freshen up on what exactly makes the guitar heroes tick. Here’s Built to Spill in 10 Songs, and you can find a playlist of every track at the end.
— Adam Kivel