Song 128: Built to Spill, “Center of the Universe” (1999)

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There’s something about Built to Spill that seems like quintessential indie rock. I’m not sure what it is—the crunch of the guitars, or maybe the elastic vocals. Whatever it is, I love it.

I didn’t hear Built to Spill into pretty late, when Keep It Like a Secret came out. I later explored their back catalog, including the excellent There’s Nothing Wrong With Love and the classic Perfect From Now On, but Keep It Like a Secret is my favorite. The songs are catchy but weird, as if notes are being bent, Dali-style, by an outside force. I’ve had the pleasure to see Built to Spill in concert, and Doug Martsch’s guitar playing is an amazing thing to watch. He just never stops, and it’s always interesting. His hero seems to be Neil Young, and the comparison is apt.

As for “Center of the Universe,” I’m in love with its melody. It winds around like a snake, in and out of corners that you didn’t know were there. There’s a classical kind of feel to it, especially the melody of the verses, the way it meanders and ends up back at the note that is the song’s key. There’s a symmetry to it, a kind of neatness that pops up in other Martsch songs, like “Conventional Wisdom” and the vastly underrated “Life’s A Dream.”

Built to Spill is labelmates with Flaming Lips–that is, they’re both on Warner Bros. I think that’s amazing: one of the most major of major labels, onetime home to Tom Petty and Paul Simon, houses two weird-ass bands. The term “major label” becomes less understood by the day, as sales fluctuate wildly and companies merge or sink altogether, but I still think it’s amazing that both bands ended up there (in the “alternative” feeding frenzy in the nineties), and that they’re still there.

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