The first song on You in Reverse, "Goin' Against Your Mind," has over two minutes of frantic instrumental energy before the vocals start. It's both a fitting introduction and a promise that fails to deliver.
The guys in Built to Spill are at their best on the guitar-heavy You in Reverse. They are eclectic without being unapproachable, difficult without being unlistenable, and thoughtful without being sentimental. They are, in many ways, a perfect fusion between self-indulgent experimentation and user-friendly pop. If I had to draw a parallel, I wouldn't compare them to peers like My Morning Jacket or Modest Mouse; instead, I'd liken them to a lovechild of indie icon Neil Young and soulful guitar virtuoso Duane Allman.
So why does You in Reverse fall short? It could be because they have a strong vision and good musical hearts, but they're limited by their musicianship. (That's a complaint I'll rarely throw at a band, because I'd much rather hear heart than chops.) It could be the monotony of Doug Martsch's voice. It could be that the rhythm section is boring. It could be that the songs bounce between creative adventures and disjointed indie clichés.
Or it could be that I've listened to this album dozens of times since it came out, and it took probably 10 listens before I could remember a single thing about it. Each time, I felt like an Alzheimer's patient finding an old friend: the experience was enjoyable but ultimately forgettable.
Some of the songs are wonderful. I could listen to the first two tracks over and over again, and "Gone" is a pleasure every time it hits my ears. There are more than a few weak moments, though. "Liar" (whose insipidly memorable hook is the closest thing to a pop song on the album) and "Conventional Wisdom" are grating, and "Mess With Time" tries to sound spooky and Egyptian but succeeds only at sounding stupid and clichéd. Overall, the guitars are the shining point, and it was wise to focus so much attention on them.
Mike Scheer's artwork is fun to look at, although it doesn't speak to me the way other similar artists do. To me, the art doesn't reflect the music, but it does force me to listen (and look) in a different way. As a result, I heard (and saw) things that I hadn't noticed before.
Listen if you like: My Morning Jacket, Modest Mouse, Pavement, Neil Young, and I'd even say Allman Brothers (as long as you keep an open mind).
If it were food, it'd be: Fried okra. It's good, it's off the beaten path, but it's kind of forgettable.