Built to Spill and The Flaming Lips duke it out

By Geoffrey Steuven

Built to Spill gained all sorts of rock critic cred back in 1999 with Keep It Like a Secret, the same year that The Flaming Lips broke out of their unfortunate one-hit wonder status (remember “She Don’t Use Jelly”?) with the formalist masterpiece The Soft Bulletin. In the intervening years, The Lips have continued to wow American critics with meditations on the inevitability of death and the necessity of love and a cartoonish stage image, while Built to Spill have kept a low profile and a reputation for boring-ness that is simply a cover for a truly exciting and classic rock `n’ roll band.

Now both bands are back with early April releases, and the consensus seems to be that everything is different even while nothing has changed. On You in Reverse, it is said that Built to Spill have finally let their inhibitions go and released the great rock album they always had in them. But they had few musical inhibitions to begin with, and Keep It Like a Secret was a damn-near-perfect rock album seven years before this one.

And on At War With the Mystics, The Flaming Lips have constructed another cycle of songs about love and death, this time without a specific conceptual link and peppered with decidedly political undertones. The Mystics referred to in the title could either be radical Islamic terrorists or the born-again leader of the free world, depending on your mood.

You In Reverse is an album in the grand tradition of Television and Meat Puppets and Sonic Youth, bands that let their guitars do most of the talking. Leader Doug Martsch’s plaintive moan is largely absent from the proceedings, serving often merely as punctuation between the instrumental onslaughts.

In terms of sound, Built to Spill may be descendents of Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath and their brethren, but there is a difference. Like Sleater-Kinney with last year’s glorious The Woods, Built to Spill makes hard rock more palatable by giving it an indie-rock/post-punk context, thereby removing the sort of elitism associated with heavy metal and prog-rock that always kept an invisible barrier between musician and fan. Even the cover art recalls the 80s DIY aesthetic, a simplistic and gaudily pleasing stilllife that suggests a band either short on cash or doing a favor for its starving-artist friend.

In sharp contrast to You In Reverse’s guitar pyrotechnics, At War With the Mystics resonates stronger in its quieter moments, and benefits from not having an overarching storyline. Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (2002) was disappointing precisely because its concept never solidified into a powerful statement, and saved its best songs for the end, after its story of a Japanese karate girl had already played out. The new album represents another step in the band’s struggle to achieve that perfect balance of song and concept that seemed so effortless on The Soft Bulletin. Yoshimi favored the latter, while on Mystics, melody once again seems like more than just an afterthought.

But when melody is sacrificed for politics, the result is puzzling. “You think you’re a radical / But you’re not such a radical / In fact you’re fanatical,” is a good line, but one wishes the Lips would reign in their ambitions and once again make the fun and strange albums that long ago made them a cult phenomenon. By trying to let its songs of politics and ethics play out like a battle between good and evil on a Saturday morning cartoon, Mystics often leaves the listener wondering what the point is.

Like Built to Spill, The Flaming Lips are serious and thoughtful musicians, and both new albums require multiple listens to even scratch the surface. However, The Lips’ attempt at a variation on past successes never quite materializes, and the album is strongest when it seems to be moving in a new direction. The impact of Built to Spill’s obtuse and dense guitar rock, meanwhile, can only become more deeply felt with subsequent listens. In terms of intent and execution, Built to Spill have won the battle, while The Flaming Lips are clearly already thinking in terms of the war.