I guess it was the name and the fanbase that kept me from getting into Built To Spill until well after I was out of college. Which is unfortunate, cause I would have LOVED them in college. So when Dave tells me he can't believe that I don't know them, and says he's gonna give me a couple tracks from their live album, I was like, "Whoa, whoa, whoa..."
I don't generally like live albums, you see.
But he sends me these tracks, which obviously I love, and then the whole record. And I totally flipped for it. Which is weird.
Not cause it's a solo-heavy "guitarist's record". Not cause it's anything but an awesome album.
It's because it's a live album.
I have a few live albums I like, and some of the better ones are the ones that were heavily studio "adjusted". Cheap Trick's At Budokan is about as good as a live album gets. Hell, it's about as good as ANY album gets. But overall, I'd rather hear the studio versions. If I really want to hear a stripped down, "just the band playing" version of a song, I'd rather hear a demo than a live version of a song I already know. Hearing a live album as the first time I'm exposed to a band is the kiss of death as far as my record collection is concerned. It's not because I'm against the idea of live records, it's just that they're often so much more flaccid, as most bands don't start playing a song live until they've recorded it anymore, and so then they're trying to recapture the magic of a moment created in the studio, and it's sad.
Built To Spill aren't any more of a "killer live band" than they are a "fine-tuned studio band". It's not like they're the Grateful Dead, who (allegedly) have to be seen live to be fully appreciated. So what made this so special? The production's thick enough that it may as well be a studio album. It's not that I'm enamoured of the jamming - as a rule, I avoid records that are full of extended jams; I think it's because there's a certain energy that pervades the proceedings that just relaxes and lets the songs happen. And not worrying about overdubs and space and the cost of tape, it's got a natural fluidity that is a very rare magic indeed. It's hard to find records where you can hear a song blossom, improvised, to realize it's full potential, while still remaining in the service of the song. A live record that shows what the band is capable of, but still manages to sound like a studio record that was recorded live, you dig? Think about it too hard and your brain will hurt. Luckily there's tons of AMP NOISE on the album. That'll make your brain stop hurting as much. And seriously, who leaves amp crackle and hum on their album?
So, the point is, most live albums suck. They're the defintion of cash-in, designed to bilk consumers out of cash for a version of a song they already have, and by recording at a concert, the cost to create the record is drastically lower than it is to create revised studio versions. But there ARE exceptions. Built To Spill's Live is one of them, At Budokan is another. While The Smiths' late-period live album is my favorite of their records, it wouldn't hold up in the pantheon of the greats. And I realize that the Sound Opinions podcast covered this EXACT SAME GROUND a few weeks ago, but the question is, what are the most underrated live albums of all time? You can keep your Live At Leeds and Get Your Ya-Yas Out!, I want to know about those secret gems that nobody ever adds to those lists, but realizes they should have two days later. Things like Spacemen 3 and Spiritualized, Suicide, Big Black, Black Flag, and even the Butthole Surfers. Im going to ponder this and come back later with which ones and why, but in the meantime, drop any suggestions in the box...