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Like any songwriter fortunate enough to be more than two decades into a successful run, Doug Martsch is faced with a philosophical choice with each new album. Swing for the creative fence with potentially embarrassing results — what, still no EDM mixes or Imagine Dragons guest appearances on Built So Spill’s eighth studio effort? — or stay in the wheelhouse. Boise’s guitar mastermind takes the latter route on this 10-song journey. Not that “Untethered Moon” travels too far, save for the 3- or 4-minute psychedelic trip up into the night stars.
Soaking up “Living Zoo,” which noodles, doodles and builds steam for a good minute and a half before Martsch actually sings, it’s impossible not to be awestruck by how odds-defying Built To Spill has been since forming in 1992. Despite his polarizing, nasally vocals, Martsch has been adored by many critics. He’s been worshiped by notoriously fickle indie scenesters while mining new, sometimes mainstream fans. And he’s done all this while making jammy, prog-influenced rock music that sounds unmistakably like, well, him.
Martsch employed a new drummer and bassist on this album, but his primary musical ingredients remain old-school: layers of shimmering guitars, sparring chords and generous stretches of unashamed fretboard wanking. The ax interplay often is inventive and energetic, and it will sound even better on stage with the added firepower of touring guitarists Brett Netson and Jim Roth. The loose, extended instrumental hallucinogenics on the 8-minute album closer, “When I’m Blind,” beg for live experimentation. Conversely, the pretty “Horizon to Cliff” feels like a nod to the “There’s Nothing Wrong With Love” era of the 1990s, while “C.R.E.B.” is filled with Martsch’s quirkier side.
“Untethered” is solid. It’s also safe in a way that will resonate with most fans — even if a few might still be holding out hope for mid-to-later career magic akin to the bruising, lyrically inspired “Goin’ Against Your Mind” from 2006’s “You in Reverse.” People who don’t get Built To Spill still aren’t going to get it. That’s fine. Built To Spill is a grassroots, word-of-mouth machine — an experience that parents now pass on to their kids, who pass it on to their friends. Check out the old bald dudes and tattooed millennials mingling together at packed live shows. Then ask yourself why Martsch should ever change anything but his worn guitar strings.