Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene From Scratch

Trio's latest rebuilds rock 'n' roll one note, one beat at a time

By Noel Murray

MARCH 15, 1999:  Keep it Like a Secret, the latest album from Idaho-based modern rockers Built to Spill, doesn't open with a song so much as a series of fleeting musical impulses. It kicks off with a low strum, followed by a quiet jangle, and then bandleader Doug Martsch--who has one of those high, sweetly nasal voices that sounds multitracked even when it isn't--starts commenting laconically about "The Plan." (It keeps coming up, he sings, and it means nothing, and it stays the same.)

By the second line, Martsch has cranked up the volume on his guitar, letting out a hot, fluid burst of one-note picking, but it doesn't last. The song breaks suddenly into what passes for a chorus--a wordless half-riff snaking around a rhythm that shifts abruptly from slow four-four to rapid rat-a-tats.

Listening to "The Plan" is like hearing a group of musicians create a song off the tops of their heads--building it up one note, one drumbeat at a time, and changing directions on a whim. It's as if the band had tossed out the rulebook of contemporary popular music, which requires artists either to be devotees of a certain style or movement, or to bounce between genres like dilettantes. But the oddball construction of "The Plan" is nothing new to Built to Spill, though the casual drift of instrumentation is--a response, perhaps, to the tightness of the trio's previous recordings.

The last Built to Spill album, the near-masterpiece Perfect From now on., was completely in the can in a minimal, three-man-band version when Martsch decided he wasn't happy with the scaled-down scope. He brought in an army of friends, dressed up the arrangements, adding mellotron and strings, and rerecorded the whole thing. Then someone lost the master tapes, and the whole group had to be brought back in to record the album a third time. The result was a well-thought-out, finely crafted piece of music, full of ambition and sweat.

Built to Spill--now back to a three-piece--have approached Keep it Like a Secret with a more relaxed attitude. After "The Plan," the album proceeds with variations on that opening theme--namely, songs that sound like cobbled-together excerpts from longer jams. "Center of the Universe," for example, is essentially one big hook--it takes a full verse to complete the main melody. The escalating rave-up "Sidewalk" is an exercise in stripped-down power-pop, accentuated by brief, nonsensical lyrics. "You Were Right" sounds epic in scope, with crashing drums and bombastic lead guitar, until Martsch turns the song into a joke (or perhaps an homage) by quoting a string of classic rock lyrics.

Even when they're not muscling up their sound, Built to Spill maintain a spirit of adventure. The lovely twins "Else" and "Temporarily Blind" both start in medias res, with pulsing bass setting a rhythmic foundation from which Martsch works subtle variations. In contrast to the more turbulent parts of the record, these two tracks float like kites in a gentle, twisting wind. The cumulative force of all these fragmented, free-floating moments of tunefulness is to keep the listener in a constant state of anticipation, excited about what may come next (even if it's a misguided thudder like "Bad Light" or "Broken Chairs").

To that end, the album's highlight--and maybe the best BTS song to date--is "Carry the Zero." Buoyed by short, light arcs of slide guitar, the track begins as an exhausted complaint directed toward a self-absorbed friend. But it doesn't really take off until the coda, when Martsch gooses his sidemen to jack up the tempo a hair as he delivers a series of sing-songy riffs. Despite the nasty tone of the lyrics, the final minute of "Carry the Zero" is the sound of a band having a blast, playing with their considerable power of expression--they're cutting loose, too full of joy to get bogged down by the hassle of jerky people. The song fades too quickly, but I like to imagine that somewhere in hyper-time, Built to Spill play on, unwilling to stop a good thing while it's going.


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