Built to Spill
Keep it Like a Secret (Warner Bros.)
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 Martschwho has one of those high, sweetly nasal voices that sounds multitracked even when it isn’tstarts 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 chorusa 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 headsbuilding 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 isa 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 Spillnow back to a three-piecehave approached Keep it Like a Secret with a more relaxed attitude. After “The Plan,” the album proceeds with variations on that opening themenamely, songs that sound like cobbled-together excerpts from longer jams. “Center of the Universe,” for example, is essentially one big hookit 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 highlightand maybe the best BTS song to dateis “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 expressionthey’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.
Olivia Tremor Control, Black FoliageAnimation Music (Flydaddy) Athens, Ga.-based Olivia Tremor Control are part of the recording collective known as Elephant 6, which also includes Apples in Stereo and Neutral Milk Hotel. Due to their close association with these bands, OTC have been classified as part of the same “basement psychedelia” movement. There is some truth in that: The group assays a lo-fi production style, and their music is pretty mind-bending. But they’ve added an extra layer of...well, a cynical listener might call it pretension, where the more charitable listener would say vision.
OTC’s second album, Black Foliage (due later this month), is divided into four segments (“movements,” perhaps?) that stagger trippy noise-pop tunes with short sonic experiments. While it could be that they’re trying to create an air of mystery around their fairly straightforward songs, the music suggests that they feel some link to the recent mini-revival of prog-rock in alternative music. Quite a few current groups have been inspired by the likes of Emerson Lake and Palmer and Rushnot for their lyrical obsession with myths and folklore, but for their love of multi-part songs that have as much in common with Beethoven as Chuck Berry. Built to Spill (to name the best and most prominent of the neo-proggers) may ape the melodic styles of Neil Young and The Smiths, but their structural adventurism is scaled-down Yes. Then there are all those jazzy post-rockers (Tortoise, et al.) who channel King Crimson as much as they do Bitches Brew.
Unlike the work of some neo-proggers, though, Olivia Tremor Control’s songs would stand on their own, without all the production props. Bandleader Will Cullen Hart writes from dreams and sings in a creamy voicehis pet technique is to drag out the last word of any given line and give it a few extra notes in rising harmony. The effect is to pull the listener ever up and up, to the clouds. Meanwhile, he commands his mini-orchestra of just about anything that can be blown into, strummed, or banged uponstretching the “found sound” aesthetic of his experimental pieces to include instruments making arranged, harmonious music.
Olivia Tremor Control can try the listener’s patience, mainly because their “official” songs are so arresting that the between-song tissue seems all the more disposable. On Black Foliage, jaunty ditties like “hideaway,” “a new day,” and “a place we have been to” fall together so beautifully that it becomes aggravating to hear them fall apart again. And the juxtaposition of random noise with titles like “the sky is a harpsichord canvas” isn’t meaningful enough to suggest that the group is reaching for a larger concept. Instead, the listener just comes away wanting to hear more pop gems.
In other words, if OTC are attempting to vivify their music with the trappings of prog, it’s not an especially effective technique. Perhaps they’d be better served with a sprinkling rather than a dollop. Still, it’s interesting that while more minimalist genres like rap and punk have rebuilt pop music by tearing it down, the artier rock crowd has done the same by throwing everything against the wall and keeping what doesn’t drop to the linoleum. It’s even more interesting that whatever sticks, no matter the genre, is the stuff that gets the head humming.
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