“You in Reverse” (Warner Bros.), Built to Spill’s first album in more than three years, is uncharacteristically poppy and cohesive, filled with energetically played, tightly constructed songs. At the Troubadour on Wednesday night, the first of a five-night run of sold-out shows, the reason behind the change became apparent — Doug Martsch, the band’s singer, songwriter and featured guitarist, has discovered the New Wave.
With three guitars sprinting and darting around each other, songs from the new album such as “Goin’ Against Your Mind” and “Liar” are played with a snap and sinew Built to Spill rarely evinced in the past. Drummer Scott Plouf attacks his drums with an unrelenting force, Brett Nelson plays punchy, New Order-styled basslines high up on the neck and Martsch sings in an urgent voice while he has added angular guitar lines reminiscent of Television’s Richard Lloyd.
Unfortunately, he also seems to have discovered dub (the ’70s New Waver’s version of world music) and a primitive echo box indulged Martsch’s worst tendencies. A meandering player even under the best of circumstances (the songs can run upward of seven minutes; if you don’t like what he’s playing, just wait a few minutes), the effects box gave him even more license to play solos that dribble away into the ether. A cover of the Gladiator’s rasta stemwinder “Rearrange” is a leaden attempt at rabble-rousing.
He tried to strike another anti-war and anti-Bush note with “Bomb Shelter,” a Halo Benders’ instrumental performed while a video of Calvin Johnson lectures about government and terrorism. His demeanor is so arrogantly supercilious that, even if you agree with him, his argument is unpersuasive. Even as they expand their style, Built to Spill’s narrow and inward focus makes protest music a more aspirational than operational project.