Singer-guitarist Doug Martsch used to kick out the jams. He still does on Ancient Melodies of the Future, the new album from Built to Spill, but they're shorter now and more to the point. The album represents a departure for Martsch's Boise, Idaho post-punk trio. Instead of eight- and nine-minute rock songs that occasionally drip into excess and tedium, the 10 tracks on Ancient Melodies clock in at an economical 39 minutes. Hardly the ear-numbing overkill we're used to.
Despite its conservative length and clipped songs (a few of which fade out just as Martsch and crew begin to find their groove), the third big-league album from Built to Spill (not counting last year's live disc) makes good use of its time. There's still a Neil Youngish quality to both Martsch's voice and the guitar tones -- an influence that was all the more obvious on the scorching 20-minute version of "Cortez the Killer" that the group hauled out on tour a couple of years ago -- but the grand scale of things has been slimmed down. Which makes this, in a way, Built to Spill's pop album. The song "Fly Around My Pretty Little Miss," for example, is the cheeriest thing the band has ever recorded. But popular music never sounded this strange (one of the songs is even called "Strange," and it's one of the album's best tracks). In Martsch's hands, pop bends and forms itself into something vaguely retro and self-indulgent. The album's title is apt: There's something hazily familiar in its modernity. It is, really, a smaller version of Built to Spill's usual agenda.