Built to Spill

American indie rockers look back to the future in Belfast's Limelight

If you wait long enough, everything comes back into fashion and so it seems to be the case with 1990s indie guitar. The Pixies have bagged the cash, Mercury Rev have just released their most impressive record in a decade, internet fan forums reverberate with rumours of a Pavement reformation – and Idaho/Seattle based indie heroes Built to Spill roll into Belfast for the first time.

Essentially a vehicle for the considerable songwriting talents of Doug Martsch, Built to Spill’s combination of the wry, caustic lyricism of Pavement and Yo La Tengo and the fractured song structures and melodies of Dinosaur Jr and Neil Young has guaranteed them a dedicated, if relatively small, following among indie aficionados since their formation in 1993.

Tonight, Built to Spill are touring under the ‘Don’t Look Back’ umbrella -  the idea being that indie bands perform one of their albums in its entirety – playing their classic, thrice-recorded 1997 cut Perfect From Now On.

The years have not been kind to Martsch. Hirsute, tired looking and covering his paunch with a t-shirt of Yozzer Hughes from the Boys from the Blackstuff, he greets the Limelight’s sparse crowd with a half-cocked eyeball and a monosyllabic grunt reminiscint of the bubble permed Liverpudlian.

The crowd/band interaction does not get much better once the gig finally gets underway. When one punter shouts ‘turn the vocals up’, after the lyrics are rendered indecipherable by guitar fuzz on opener ‘Randy Described Eternity’, Martsch responds with an acid-tongued ‘why don’t you shut the fuck up?’.

The lack of magnanimity in Martsch’s stage presence contrasts sharply with his thoughtful, intricate music. ‘Stop the Show’ - a slacker love song full of angular guitars and slight references to what could have been - ‘Made Up Dreams’, and ‘Out of Site’ showcase Built To Spill at their best - inventive, slight songwriting and unpredictable chord changes overlaid by Martsch’s smooth, almost nonchalant vocals.

The conceit behind ‘Don’t Look Back’ – which originally began with bona fide classics like the Stooges’ Funhouse and Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation – has, of late, become rather tired and Perfect From Now On is an odd choice for a reprisal.

The record is arguably not Built to Spill’s best (follow up, Keep It Like A Secret, is more rounded), sections suffer from an over indulgence of grunge guitars and it’s doubtful whether some of the lesser tracks would ever have been played live again under normal circumstances.

Hardly surprising, then, that it’s only during the encore that Built to Spill, freed from the strictures of reproducing an entire album and able to dip into their extensive back catalogue, finally show the full breadth of their talents.

The lush, plaintive ‘Car’ (with its chorus of ‘I want to see you in movies of my dreams’) is a beautifully brittle indie anthem, full of early ‘90s anomie. Martsch even breaks a smile as he puts in his i-pod headphones to get the beat for a thrillingly unexpected cover of MIA’s ‘Paper Planes’, the crowd hollering ‘all I wanna do ‘ and pointing imaginary AK-47s to the ceiling.

‘Now it’s coming back again’, Martsch sings on set closer ‘Carry the Zero’. If ‘90’s American indie is making a comeback then, on tonight’s evidence, Built to Spill still have what it takes to claim their niche in the vanguard - though hopefully next time they swing through town they’ll be looking forward not backwards.

Peter Geoghegan