Top 25 Songs of 2009: 15

15) “Aisle 13,” Built to Spill. Before the veteran indie rockers released 2009’s There Is No Enemy, this writer appreciated Built to Spill from a safe distance: singles only, please. “Car” was a big hit freshman year of college and for obvious reasons. Lead singer Dough Martsch sounds like a candid sophomore; he’s got advice for you but also a lot of questions. In “Car” reality is, as cliché as it sounds, almost always like a dream (“I wanna see the movies of my dreams”). The whole song pivots between a desire to have the world explained (“I wanna see it when you find out what comets, stars, and moons are all about”) and the deep seeded fear that these things about life are mysterious for a reason (“You’ll get the chance to take the world apart and figure out how it works / Don’t let me know what you find out”). It’s the stoned philosophical babble of a freshman “on a cloudy breezy desert afternoon.”

As for the instrumentation, the song relies an unusual amount on the cello to carry it forward. We don’t like to argue that strings or cellos actually sound like nostalgia or earnest emotion or anything along those lines. That’s just silly. But, seriously, in “Cars” the cellos aren’t adding just low frequencies — they are what pushes the song past its loud drums and screeching guitars (the traditional instruments of overwhelming teenage emotion; see: music, punk) and into an arena peculiar for guitar-rock bands of the 90s. Perhaps that is the right word for this whole song, its themes, its instrumentation, Martsch’s singing, the cellos — everything is, just, well, peculiar. And catchy too, we might add.

What’s strange too is that 15 years later and BtS finally release another song that catches my ear. Get this: it’s about the same shit as “Car”. The chorus’ second couplet is the exact sentiment the band captured all the way back in 1994: “No one knows cuz no one wants to / know what’s in their minds.” A decade and a half after “Car” and the band is still grappling with the same issues — dreams, the mind, reality — but this time it’s not mystery hiding away, it’s human nature denying us answers. No one wants to know.

Note that this kind of skepticism about mankind fits nicely with caricatures of bitter old men, which BtS could be. Lucky for you, they just aren’t. An older Martsch (maybe wiser, too?) still sings like his senses are overwhelmed, the high tone in his voice and the cadence retaining the bemused style of 1994. And Martsch keeps observing, in a way: “Every day / something strange / I can’t explain / happens to me / often I am called by name to clean up Aisle 13.” The mess, we imagine, is the result of flabbergasted adolescents stumbling up and down the aisles, knocking milk off the shelves. This time BtS assume the role of reassuring father figure, “don’t be all / so all afraid / everyone / has weird dreams.”

Sure, the message isn’t mind-blowing — but it doesn’t have to be. The band knew something all along: that milk, it was built to spill. Don’t worry about cleaning up, 15 years later and BtS still have you covered.

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Filed under Fred | Unnecessary, Top 25 Songs of 2009

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