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The Boston Phoenix Pop Secrets

Built To Spill's heroic guitars

By Richard Martin

FEBRUARY 23, 1999:  During the summer of 1997, a sort of summit on the future of American rock took place in an amphitheater cut into a densely forested park in northern Oregon. Indie-folk waif Elliott Smith gave the opening statement, sounding a bit shaky and forlorn though his songs hinted at a budding confidence. Veteran noisemakers Sonic Youth came forth with a rebuttal that roused hawks from their perches and filled the blue expanse with ringing atonal chords and contrapuntal jams. Pomo showman Beck danced and romanced his way through an exalted, full-band presentation of hip-hop and blues. But the man who appeared most at ease amid the rolling hills and towering trees was a bearded fellow from Boise named Doug Martsch. He may lack the personal songwriting style of Smith, the avant-gardism of Sonic Youth, and the flamboyance of Beck, but he effortlessly commandeered the crowd with guitar epics that filled the natural surroundings with bent notes, sustained chords, and finger-melting leads.

That was one of many sets Built To Spill played in support of their '97 major-label debut, Perfect from Now On (Warner Bros.), and it was one of many occasions when Martsch left fans both awed by his classic-rock-meets-indie-pop technique and scuttled by his unwillingness to perform more than a couple of songs from the album on the table, or even from his band's previous records. Some skeptical souls -- even among the faithful in Martsch's home region -- began whispering the word "wanker" in the same breath as his hallowed name (keep in mind that his previous outfit, Treepeople, came in from the bullpen during grunge's last innings to throw a steady diet of clanging pop curve balls, earning the band a devout, if limited, following). Where, they wondered, were the punctuated three-minute melodic vignettes of 1994's There's Nothing Wrong with Love and the K Records singles? Why were Doug and his newly solidified trio -- ex-Spinanes drummer Scott Plouf and ex-Caustic Resin bassist Brett Nelson -- engaging in the sort of long-form musical excursions that Pink Floyd and the Grateful Dead tried but were often too freaked out or drugged up to pull off?

Martsch's typically defiant answer has come in the form of Built To Spill's new Keep It Like a Secret (Warner Bros.). The terse, note-perfect tunes are back, most clocking in between three and five minutes and teeming with hooks. But the guitar wizardry from Perfect, which led elder critics to drool out comparisons to Hendrix and Clapton, carries over and extends. Martsch has gotten more focused, but he crams in enough licks to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop and then some.

As if to flaunt his ability to walk the line between hipper-than-thou indie and rubber-stamped, classic-style rock, he sprays Secret's anthemic weapon, "You Were Right," with both revved-up riffs and sneering recitals of lines from crusty hits by Kansas ("you were right when you said all we are is dust in the wind"), Pink Floyd ("all we are is bricks in the wall") and John Mellencamp ("life goes on long after the thrill of living is gone"). He also exploits an effervescent songwriting prowess, fusing the jaunty inclinations of Built To Spill's poppier early work with the more-expansive soundscapes he teased on Perfect, as well as in his three full-length collaborations with K Records' basso profundo prez Calvin Johnson as the Halo Benders. "Center of the Universe" breezes along on a singsong melody, with Martsch's guitar careering in an approximation of his whiny vocal timbre, as if he were the anti-George Benson.

But just as he can use these methods to splash his songs with punk irreverence, Martsch pulls back convincingly and becomes irresistibly eloquent on the chillingly tender Beatlesque love song "Else." Same goes for Secret's most mellifluous and stately track, "Carry the Zero," in which guitars glide around and interact as gracefully as figure skaters until the trio alights on a rhythmically complex and biting outro.

These displays of skillfulness and compositional mastery suggest that Martsch is ready to join more-successful peers such as Beck and Elliott Smith, though the soft-spoken, hype-deflecting front man of Built To Spill will likely fight off any attempts to paint him as a guitar-rock savior. In shows, Martsch and friends are reportedly ignoring much of this "more accessible" new material in favor of set lists that will continue to stymie fans. In the flurry of interviews that will accompany the album's release, he'll undoubtedly divert attention from his own band to mention neighboring Northwest up-and-comers such as Quasi and Modest Mouse, the latter of which he's reportedly working with as a first-time producer. But he may have a hard time muting the buzz about Secret; it's a proclamation that rock is far from dead, and an overwhelming assertion of his genuine and rare talents.

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