Built To Spill's Center of the Universe is a rather disappointing release, with two strong tracks and two weak, live renditions of songs from the band's earlier releases. The title track, taken from the band's Keep It Like a Secret album, is full of mind-twisting, soaring guitars and powerful hooks. It's one of those songs that only frontman Doug Martsch can pull off. His high-pitched vocals play hide-and-seek with an accomplished arsenal of drums, bass, and wailing guitars. "Center of the Universe" is power pop bliss infused with massive rock power; it seems like a cliche, but it's true. "Now and Then," a relatively tender and sweet B-side, continues the charm. The song sees Martsch and company slowing things down considerably, as a bluesy guitar strays all over a map of emotional chords. Goofy sound effects only add to what amounts to a quite touching ballad. As he's prone to do, Martsch presents an equal mastery of emotion and sonics. "Now and Then" might be a minute too long, but it's extended, instrumental passages are beautifully controlled amid hints that swarming dynamics could take over at any time. "Kicked It In the Sun," from Perfect From Now On, and "Big Dipper," from There's Nothing Wrong With Love, are both taken from a live, acoustic performance at a coffee house. "Kicked It In the Sun" starts out strong, but after the first guitar solo, things start to fall apart; Martsch's voice and poorly recorded guitar strumming blend together to create an awkward, annoying din. The chief problem is that it's hard to differentiate one chord from another. It was either a bad day for Martsch or his guitar was out of tune. Either way, one would have to be a diehard fan to get anything really positive out of the performance. It's simply pushing the whine factor too far. "Big Dipper" suffers from the same problems, with the added stress of Martsch's angry vocals. Both live songs work more as a nuisance than any kind of acoustic revelation. It should be noted that the tracklisting is in error; "Big Dipper" is actually the fourth song, and "Kicked It In The Sun" is actually the third song. The error is indicative of the quality of the live recording as well. The big question is whether or not "Now and Then" justifies a look into the single. Center of the Universe ultimately presents two quality tracks and two missteps from an amazing band that usually does no wrong.
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AllMusic Review by Tim DiGravina