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-- Ben Greenman

Built to Spill
Keep It Like a Secret
(Warner Bros.)

With a mosquito voice and reverence for the guitar gods of rock and roll, Built to Spill leader Doug Martsch is an unlikely underground rock icon. The wordplay of his lyrics and the intriguing, shape-shifting of his songs fit snugly into the indie-rock world, but Martsch and his supporting cast of characters (including ex-Spinanes drummer Scott Plouf, perhaps the finest altrock drummer since Dave Grohl manned the skins for Nirvana) ignore indie rock's "no guitar heroes" rule and unself-consciously celebrate the power of rock and roll. The group unites classic rock's earnestness and indie rock's nonconformity on its fourth disc, Keep It Like a Secret, tapping into the spirit and daring that fuels the best work of both genres. Martsch refuses to give up on the idea that loose song structures, good intentions, and angular pop/rock songs with personal lyrics can connect with a small subculture. Like Pavement and Guided By Voices, his songs are grounded in the rock tradition while exploring the rough edges, gleaning new songs from the source material of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Pink Floyd. At the center of the record is Martsch and his uncanny ability to wrest new sounds from his Stratocaster.

And like the classic jam bands, BTS isn't afraid to throw in extended instrumental sections, complete with guitar solos that aren't showcases for technical skills, but sync with the overall songs. On "Carry the Zero," Martsch sings plaintively about errors in logic, both figurative and literal, while contrasting lonely, single-note runs with whammy bar guitar heroics and lightly tube-distorted jangly strums. Plouf's stuttering on the snare matches Martsch's vocal phrasing until the last two minutes, where the drums and guitars explore tangents that interweave and split apart, with Brett Nelson's bass anchoring the melody.

Built to Spill's goal, in some sense, is to blur the lines that rock was never meant to have drawn around it. Martsch is quite conscious of the effect when he quotes his forebears, singing, "You were right when you said, 'All we are is dust in the wind'/You were right when you said, 'We're all just bricks in the wall.'" By setting these words inside a blistering rocker performed in waltz time, he is making an unironic statement about the lasting impact that innovative rock can have, including records like Keep It Like a Secret.

--David Simutis

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