Built to Spill
Keep It Like a Secret
By Michaelangelo Matos
I first encountered Built to Spill not through their records but live, sandwiched between Sleater-Kinney and Sonic Youth at the 1997 Bumbershoot festival in Seattle. I expected them to be good--after all, they'd been bequeathed second place in that pinch-me lineup by Thurston Moore himself. But I sure as hell didn't expect them to blow both the deafeningly hyped openers and the veteran headliners off the stage.
That's just what they did, though: Drummer Scott Plouf, bassist Brett Nelson, and singer-guitarist Doug Martsch walked onstage and, with all the effort of a shrug, threw down a truly great set of pop songs. The lyrics were devastatingly spot-on ("I used her and she used me / But we never once had sex / All we ever had was too much time"), couched in one championship melody after another, with guitar lines that unraveled like a snagged sweater. On and on they went,mesmerizing and sinewy and impatiently rhythmic, stomping all over the sacred indie rule that solos suck like a sticky effects pedal. They unleashed one bracing, tuneful roar after another, punctuated with possibly the most sincere thank-yous ever heard from a stage.
Most of my favorite songs from that set have finally been released on Built to Spill's fourth album, Keep It Like a Secret. I won't say it's a perfect album; I won't even say it lives up to the live show. The fierce, jutting breakdowns on "Temporarily Blind," for instance, come out as controlled, perfectly played patterns on the record. But it still wipes the floor with damn near every guitar record I've heard in the past five years.
That's "guitar" not just as a means to an end but "guitar" as in a way of life. Like Nile Rodgers, like Neil Young, like soukous master Diblo Dibala, Martsch is spectacular but not showy. His solos are less glorified finger exercises than unpremeditated extensions of his rhythm playing. Like Bob Mould, Martsch manages to play rhythm and lead at once, only he's specific where Mould is a roaring blur. There are overdubs, but mostly the second or third guitar tracks add airy slide or pretty, high arpeggios--they're there primarily for atmosphere. The meat is Martsch's monstrous hooks--the jangling verses and crunching choruses of "Sidewalk," the line-ending curlicues of the gorgeous "Else," the classic-rock riff-o-rama of "You Were Right." The solos spring up from these and then push up and out, lingering on three-note motifs and then feeling their way past them as if through a dark room, in nuanced explorations of fresh terrain.
Martsch's vocal melodies are equally soulful. His voice conveys innocence and experience, empathy and steeliness. His lyrics are often gorgeous koans like "Just this side of love / Is where you'll find the confidence not to continue / Your body breaks, your needs consume you forever / And in this lies the need to be here together"--which might mean anything on paper but means something very specific when you hear it in Martsch's spectral delivery.
Keep It Like a Secret is the first Built to Spill record to feature the same rhythm section as the last Built to Spill record, and the stability translates into a new confidence. Plouf's measured kit-bashing and Nelson's deep countermelodies are as intuitive and focused as rock 'n' roll has sounded this decade, even in that other all-in-one-package trio from the Pacific Northwest, Nirvana. Built to Spill is not quite the rocket Nirvana was--Plouf isn't Dave Grohl, and even if he were, he wouldn't have room to prove it, since Martsch's songs don't swing, musically or moodwise, as hard as Kurt Cobain's. But they move pretty damn elegantly nevertheless. And when they're on--when they all lock into a groove, as on the stunning fadeout of "Carry the Zero," which rivals the ending of the Velvet Underground's "What Goes On" for sheer ass-shaking intensity--they achieve liftoff.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): uncredited photo; album cover.