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It sounds as if Built to Spill’s leader, Doug Martsch, grew up with his ears trained to ’70s rock radio and his eyes glued to the earnest punk rag MAXIMUMROCKNROLL. It’s easy to see a teenage Martsch poring over MRR’s cantankerous letters and columnsscribbled by enraged minds distrustful of everything that smacks of government or adulthoodand identifying with their anger and doubt: As Martsch reads MRR’s manifestos, his radio blaring the Nowheresville, Idaho, rock station that smoothly segues from Cheap Trick to Blue Öyster Cult, he is dreaming of getting together enough scratch to mail-order a few of the punk-rock records reviewed. Martsch’s divergent but obvious influences, namely classic rock’s ambition and punk’s emotionalism and suspicion of everything, must have seared themselves into his musical memory because, even through numerous lineup changes over five albums, Built to Spill still sounds like the best hardcore band Neil Young never formed.
In 1992, after Martsch left Seattle art punkers Treepeople and returned to his native Idaho, he conceived Built to Spill as a loose band: Its cast has shifted more times than Law & Order’s. Tired of touring and the grunge-era Puget Sound city, Martsch went back to Boise and called upon friends to help him make 1993’s Ultimate Alternative Wavers. The songs flow like lava, spurting anger and zeal, ardor and intensity, distortion and clarity. A year later, the band’s follow-up album, There’s Nothing Wrong With Love, retained Wavers’ volcanic energy but crammed it into four-minute nuggets of rock ‘n’ roll. Then Martsch, just as he was hitting his stride, turned his attention to co-leading Halo Benders rather than work on another Built to Spill album.
Martsch sings and composes for Halo Benders, but he shares the stage and songwriting with K Records honcho and former Beat Happening child-man Calvin Johnson. When not cutting weak-kneed dance tracks with his Dub Narcotic Sound System, Johnson is busy ruining Halo Benders with his monotonous baritone, which, although charming in Beat Happening, sinks to pitiful parody here. Because the path to Martsch’s songs on Halo Benders’ records includes stepping over Johnson’s sonic minefields, it is not a walk I recommend.
During his Halo Benders period, Martsch recorded a stopgap EP with Caustic Resin, a Boise band whose members are known to hop on and off the Built to Spill merry-go-round. Built to Spill 7-inches have come out occasionally and, along with previously issued singles, were compiled onto 1996’s The Normal Years. But it wasn’t until 1997, with a major-label deal tucked under Martsch’s ever-present beard, that Built to Spill resurfaced with a completely new album, Perfect From Now On.
Sprawling but engaging, gorgeous but bristly, Perfect From Now On took the aspirations of Ultimate Alternative Wavers and filtered them through the melodies of There’s Nothing Wrong With Love. It took Martsch and company 54 minutes to get through eight songs on Perfect From Now On, and even as people raised eyebrows at Built to Spill’s prog-rock tendencies, they couldn’t shake its spectacular sounds from their heads. It takes 54 minutes to get through 11 songs on the new Keep It Like a Secret, and the album will undoubtedly be called a return to concision. Keep It Like a Secret trims its time mostly by eschewing the hypnotic intros, endings, and bridges that lengthen Perfect From Now On’s tunes, but it does so without losing any of its predecessor’s lingering power.
On Keep It Like a Secret, as ever, Martsch’s guitar leads can cut through the din as sharply as Slash’s famous solo on “Sweet Child o’ Mine” or hiss and ring as brightly as Tom Verlaine’s six-string mangling on Television’s Marquee Moon. His voice sounds like Neil Young pushing his nasal whine in an attempt to simulate the wailings of Bob Mould in the throes of one of his Hüsker Dü-era catharses.
Keep It Like a Secret is touted as featuring Built to Spill’s first permanent lineup, though drummer Scott Plouf (ex-Spinanes) and bassist Brett Nelson (of Butterfly Train) have played in the band before. Yet both should invest their money wisely; Martsch sings on the dark-hued “Bad Light”: “Never forever/What I think is true/Never forever/What I hope to do.” The rhythm section is just as likely to get the boot as perform on the next record, and it wouldn’t necessarily be because Martsch has tired of their playing-he is just leery of stasis. It’s interesting that he comes across as so fearful of commitment, because he has a longtime girlfriend and a child. But for Martsch, at least lyrically and musically, familiarity doesn’t breed contempt so much as distrust and burning curiosity about what else is out there. On the peppy “Sidewalk,” the CD’s most linear tune, Martsch sings, “Come on, break it up/It’s gone on long enough” and “To stagger on/Radar’s got it wrong.”
Martsch is compelled by change not only in his band’s lineup but also in his whisper-to-a-scream compositions. He willfully changes tempos and dynamics like an accomplished arranger, making his songs dance like a child bouncing around a playground. “Time Trap” begins with feedback and string scratching, then introduces a dreamily picked melody, rumbles with distortion, and crescendos like a lighter ballad before jumping into its reggaeish first versewhich doesn’t appear until two minutes into the tune. Martsch’s skepticism appears again when he sings, “It’s barely yours on loan/What you think you own/The place that you call home/The ideas in your bones.”
One thing Martsch does trust is music. George Santayana wrote, “Music is essentially useless, as life is: but both lend utility to their conditions.” Music, be it Martsch’s own or the stuff that flowed from his childhood radio, serves as a religion for him, providing security in the face of human foibles. “You Were Right” brings together famous phrases from classic-rock songs and weds them with Martsch’s melancholy in an irony-free romp. Martsch moans, “You were wrong when you said/’Everything’s gonna be all right,’” before moving onto lyrics copped from Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, and Kansas, among others. Martsch precedes each rock reference with the line “You were right when you said…” then sings, “‘All that glitters isn’t gold,’”…”‘All we are is dust in the wind,’”… “‘We are all just bricks in the wall,’”…”‘Manic depression’s a frustrating mess,’”…”‘You can’t always get what you want,’”…”‘It’s a hard rain’s gonna fall,’”…”‘We’re still running against the wind/Life goes on long after the thrill of living is gone.’ You were right when you said, ‘This is the end.’”
Songs don’t lie; people do. Long live rock.CP