A major label in a minor key

Jeff Stark reviews Built to Spill's second major-label release, 'Keep It Like a Secret'

By Jeff Stark
Published February 9, 1999 12:10PM (EST)

In 1997, when Warner Bros. released "Perfect From Now On," the major label debut from the Boise, Idaho, trio Built to Spill, critics made a big deal out of the fact that the record must have shocked the record company, who no doubt bid big for the pop songs of Built to Spill's charming 1994 album, "There's Nothing Wrong With Love." The indie rockers who had adored the almost childlike simplicity of the same record must have been confused as well. "Perfect From Now On" was a sprawling epic consumed with the physicality of eternity and a personal yen to "feel the darkness shining through." Leader Doug Martsch's guitars caterwauled from preludes to codas, from turnaround riffs to extended solos. Bassist Brett Nelson and drummer Scott Plouf helped stitch Martsch's songs into multiple-part suites. Only one song ended short of five minutes. "Perfect From Now On" sold more than 40,000 copies, which is a lot of indie kids, but still a pretty dismal number for a major label looking for more than a tax write-off.

In a way, "Keep It Like a Secret" is a condensation of "Perfect" and a synthesis of all three Built to Spill releases. (Excluding "The Normal Years" because it's a rarities album, and the "Built to Spill/Caustic Resin" split EP.) The songs are, like those on "Perfect," arranged around transitions and repetitions instead of relying on verse-chorus-verse structure. But like the compositions on "There's Nothing Wrong With Love," they're shorter and deliver the punch without dancing around the ring.

That's the obvious stuff. A remnant from 1993's "Ultimate Alternative Wavers" -- a sort of silver-lining social criticism that came out in the verses "In America/Every puddle/Gasoline rainbow" -- echoes throughout "Secret." "You Were Right" is like a key to the rest of the record, because Martsch speaks so directly. The song is a litany of rock 'n' roll verses nicked from the glory days of AOR radio. "You were right/When you said, 'You can't always get what you want,'" Martsch sings in his warbly, Neil Youngish voice. "You were right/When you said, 'We're all just bricks in the wall.'"

On "You Were Right," Martsch makes a declaration with a straight face,
something that he usually doesn't do. (Elsewhere on the album, the broken
romantic stories in "Carry the Zero" and "Sidewalk" are indefinite and oblique.) When I talked to Martsch in 1994, right after he released "There's Nothing Wrong With Love," he told me that the record title was sort of a joke. He meant it to sound precocious, sarcastic. "Originally it was a tongue-in-cheek kind of remark, but true," he said. "I mean, 'There's nothing wrong with love,' you can't argue with that. But then the record came out as kind of a sappy love record anyway."

Back then, Martsch was softening his remarks, hedging his pronouncements. He doesn't do that, musically or lyrically, on "Keep It Like a Secret." On "Center of the Universe," he lashes out at a couch potato, and on "Temporarily Blind," he makes what could pass for a rallying call, in a vague, non-committal sort of way: "Who history doesn't teach it makes numb," he sings. "Turn your back on their taming." Even the album's title is an imperative. It's worth mentioning that throughout "Keep It Like a Secret," Martsch never puts himself on a soapbox, never elevates himself above his listener. "I don't like this air/But that doesn't mean that I'll stop breathing it," he sings on "Center of the Universe."

But back to "You Were Right." The song starts here: "You were wrong when you said/Everything's gonna be all right." That's a Bob Marley line from "No Woman No Cry." You could probably attribute it to the Velvet Underground as well, given that Lou Reed promised everything was going to be all right more often than a high school guidance counselor.

After that first wrong, the song moves to rights. "You were right when you said/It's a hard rain's gonna fall." And: "You were right when you said/We're still running against the wind/And life goes on long after the thrill of living is gone."

Maybe the song is literal: Bob Marley was wrong, Bob Seeger and John Cougar Mellencamp are right. Maybe it's a song about how rock music is depressing -- that like, oh, Thomas Hardy or some other classic author said, all life is mundane, broken up by only tiny flashes of inspiration and joy. That "All we are is dust in the wind."

Maybe the song is about the power of rock 'n' roll, how phrases seep into our consciousness to the point where they no longer belong to the artists who wrote them. Or maybe it just raises more questions than it answers.

Here's one last interpretation: Maybe the song is a nod to Martsch's heroes and guilty pleasures. The humble guitarist regularly champions the little guys, especially small Northwest bands. He used to praise the defunct Lync, and in interviews he claims Modest Mouse is a big influence, even if that band's budding guitar god Isaac Brock was in eighth grade watching Martsch play onstage with his previous band, Treepeople.

But Martsch's music always sounded like he never paid much attention to his peers. In 1993, when A&R guys in Seattle were signing anyone with a pulse, he settled down with his girlfriend and his baby in Boise. His first record with Built to Spill was dense and complicated when everything around him was short, sludgy and loud. His second was conversely sappy and cute. On his third, he brought back well-produced virtuoso guitar rock while other bands were playing out-of-tune instruments on their four-track recorders. So maybe that's it, maybe Martsch is acknowledging his real influences. Maybe he's not afraid to admit that Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan and, yup, even the Doors made excellent music, even if he's in the habit of coddling Northwest
unknowns like Satisfact and the Feelings. And maybe none of it adds up on purpose. As Martsch sings elsewhere on "The Plan," his voice trailing off in an uncharacteristic weary confusion, "This history lesson doesn't make any sense/In less than 10,000-year increments/Of common sense." Built to Spill craft large, grandiose pieces. If it's out of fashion, or seemingly puzzling now, just wait a while. Let them seep in, wash over; give them a chance to accomplish the size and magnitude that this guitarist wants you to hear.

Jeff Stark

Jeff Stark is the associate editor of Salon Arts and Entertainment.

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