Built To Spill, Keep It Like A Secret
The poppy followup to Perfect still has the magic
Imagine you fronted an indie rock band with a modest but loyal following. Then imagine, after years of cozy cult-favorite status, you made a scary, vertiginous leap to a major label, and worked harder on that album than you had on anything before in your life. It almost broke you, and you got more attention for it than anything you'd done before. Now you have to follow it up, and the pressure to meet expectations is bad enough. You have to wonder if Martsch ever groaned to himself: did I have to call it Perfect From Now On?
The followup was called Keep It Like A Secret, and because Martsch is such a cheerily inscrutable man, we'll never know for sure if there's a private joke buried in there somewhere. In many ways, the record forges ahead on the same path Martsch paved on Perfect; he retained, for the first time, the players that helped him record that album, a crew that included Scott Plouf, the rock-solid drummer from The Spinanes, and Quasi's Sam Coombes, whose fat, bright organ chords gives the sound it's pillowy warmth. That sound is firmly in place from the first moments of "The Plan" — a soaring effusion of guitar and descending bass that just keeps blooming as Martsch reels off enigmatic lines like "this history lesson doesn't make any sense/in anything less than 10,000 year increments." The lyric is telling; Perfect opened contemplating infinity and the cosmos, whereas now Martsch stares into the same abyss and shrugs.
This sets the tone for Secret, which is a looser, lower-stakes affair than Perfect. This is both to its credit (the shimmering, koan-like ballad "Else"; the effortless epic "Carry The Zero"; the shaggy-dog riff-rock of "Center of the Universe") and to its detriment (the vague, half-finished-sounding "Bad Light"; the sub-Crazy Horse "Broken Chairs.") After Martsch nearly drove himself crazy piecing together Perfect, you can hardly blame him for needing to relax, and after he sat his new band members down and taught them just where every organ stab and drum fill was supposed to go on the last record, it also makes sense that he would encourage a more open, collaborative atmosphere this time around. It's a shame that the results feel slightly aimless — with each member pulling in slightly different directions, they mostly end up standing in place. It boasts a number of great tunes, but Secret sits tentatively between the grandeur of Perfect and BtS's more twee, ramshackle beginnings.
The graceful way to proceed from a vaulting Big Statement to Just Another Record is a problem that has vexed artists from Nas post-Illmatic to Lucinda Williams after Car Wheels, and, all things considered, Martsch handled it with aplomb. In retrospect, Secret holds up as well as anything the band has ever made — the sense of discovery among the members was still fresh, which meant that Martsch could string together a bunch of famous classic-rock one-liners over a fat riff and it could feel like an instant classic ("You Were Right"). And, of course, the album has "Carry the Zero," still maybe Martsch's greatest song. It wasn't until 2001's Ancient Melodies from the Future that Built to Spill would start looking a little lost; here they were still carrying the indie-rock vanguard.