Quick and Dirty
Built to Spill Brightens My Vacation

A quick one this week – I’m writing this at my friend Ray’s house, in Massachusetts. I’m here visiting for Easter, and I have a few hours of downtime. I almost called in sick this week, but I like the record I’m reviewing enough to spend some of my precious vacation telling you about it. And if that’s not a decent recommendation all on its own, I don’t know what would be.

I also wanted to talk a little about South Park, and about the issue of censorship, but I don’t think I can get into it as much as I want to right now. Short version – Matt Stone and Trey Parker aired the second half of their “Cartoon Wars” epic this week. The plot: Cartman travels out west to get Fox to pull an episode of Family Guy in which the prophet Mohammed apparently will appear.

Cartman says he’s doing this out of respect for Islam and to keep people from getting hurt, but we learn that (of course) he has his own motivation – he hates Family Guy’s humor, and wants it off the air, and he knows the best way to accomplish this is to get the network to cave in one time, on one episode. This will, he says, set a precedent – if the network will pull one episode because one group is upset, it has to keep pulling them under pressure from other groups, until the show is no more.

Part two seemed to be leading up to an actual image of Mohammed as part of the Family Guy episode, which Kyle finally convinces Fox to run. But instead of the prophet, we viewers all saw a black slide with a message from Matt and Trey, informing us that Comedy Central has refused to show an image of Mohammed, and has censored the show. This was followed almost immediately by the Islamic “retaliation,” a similar cartoon depicting Jesus shitting on George Bush and the American flag. Which ran uncensored.

Big laughs, of course, at the expense of Comedy Central – until the news broke that it wasn’t, in fact, a joke. The network did tell Parker and Stone to snip their image of Mohammed from the show, and were apparently okay with Jesus taking a crap on the president. The problem I have with this isn’t the defecating Christ scene, well-timed for Holy Week – it’s the selective censorship, which is what the show’s creators railed against throughout the two-parter.

As Kyle said on Wednesday’s show, when you decide to censor something, you’re making a judgment about what is permitted as satire, and what isn’t. Either everything is okay to make fun of, or nothing is. “Cartoon Wars” was the logical extension of the message Parker and Stone have been shouting out since day one, 10 years ago, and was their most impassioned statement in defense of free speech. They constructed it in such a way that Comedy Central’s weakness and cowardice became the punchline.

I have long held the theory that most people in America don’t know what freedom of speech means, and if they did, they wouldn’t want it. Parker and Stone have been at the forefront of the free speech issue for a decade – what seems to some a juvenile, potty-mouthed cartoon is actually one of the most incisive social commentaries in any medium right now, and has been for the whole of its run. And they are dead on when it comes to what I believe is our most important right – either all speech is free, or none of it is.

More on this next week, when I can really delve into it.

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I first heard Built to Spill thanks to my time at Face Magazine – Warner Bros. sent me Perfect From Now On, the band’s third album and major-label debut. I have been hooked ever since.

BTS is from Boise, Idaho, and their leader is Doug Martsch, a high-voiced guitarist with an obviously deep Neil Young fetish. The best Built to Spill material sounds like Crazy Horse with a pop edge – long, sprawling, and in love with the sound of the guitar, yet melodic and hummable, too. Perfect was an excellent blend of those influences, with songs stretching up to 10 minutes and full of loud, distorted fretwork, but also of sweet vocals and melody lines.

The band has been good since then, but they’ve never captured the striking sound of Perfect since. Both Keep It Like a Secret and Ancient Melodies of the Future trimmed things down and scaled back the ambitions, but I didn’t mind, since Martsch came up with some winning songs in place of the six-string wonderment. The live album made the division clear – short pop songs took up half the time, and winding epics (including a 20-minute cover of “Cortez the Killer”) filled the other half. Martsch seemed to have forgotten that his band is at its best when he’s bringing those elements together.

Ah, but here’s You in Reverse, the first Built to Spill album in five years, and the band’s best since Perfect, in 1997. And you know what? They’ve found their sound again.

The record opens with “Goin’ Against Your Mind,” a nine-minute excursion that revolves around two chords and has no real chorus. And it rocks. It’s the most energetic, guitar-loving piece of work the band has done in ages – the lead lines snake in and out of the simple yet satisfying backdrop, while the drums flail wildly and Martsch sings his little heart out. It sounds like it was recorded live, and the spacey breakdown in the middle bit probably goes on for another 10 minutes when they’re on stage.

“Goin’ Against Your Mind” is a hell of an opener, and while in some ways it throws down a gauntlet that the rest of the record can’t pick up, it does set the tone. You in Reverse is a guitar record, through and through, and its simple little songs serve as mission control for some of the band’s greatest orbital journeys. Just listen to “Gone,” which shifts guitar tone several times in its not-quite-six minutes, finally crashing down in a colossal collapse.

Or check out “Traces,” an acoustic-based piece that, on the heels of “Goin’ Against Your Mind,” feels slight at first. But listen to the melody, and the web of solos in the second half – this is one of Martsch’s most accomplished songs. “Mess With Time” accomplishes the same trick, in a way, as it morphs its simple, sledgehammer riffage into a stratospheric, reggae-inflected guitar workout. The album falls apart from there, its last two tracks not quite measuring up, but the first eight provide more than enough big-wide-grin moments.

Much as I love the poppier places BTS has been since I first heard them, You in Reverse is the kind of album I always secretly wished they would make. It is the perfect juxtaposition of their talents, the ultimate indie-pop jam record, if you will. If you ever wished that J. Mascis would learn to write better songs, then this is for you. It’s a terrific return to form for Built to Spill – the band sounds energized here, and ready to take on the world. And hell, if this record makes garage-rock kids want to actually learn to play their instruments this well, then I say more power to them.

Next week, the Fiery Furnaces return. Wait, did they ever even go away? Wasn’t their last album released, like, three weeks ago…?

See you in line Tuesday morning.