The recipe for the average guitar-based rock band these days can be captured in two words: dumb fusion -- combining two or three genres, making them sound new and clever without actually creating music that's really new, as in "fresh and never been heard before." That's a toughie if you're devoid of inspiration and guts; it's so simple to rely on your record collection for ideas. Raised on punk but curious about country? There's a combo for you right there. Like the bass of classic funk and the punch of metal? Go ahead, smartypants -- run with it. And remember: The ska offbeat blends well with just about anything; all you gotta do is hit the guitar strings on the up instead of the down.
But where's the wow in rock in 1999? It used to be there, I swear. You used to be able to pop on a new rock album and hear something that you'd never heard before. Like, 'Whoa. That's weird. Wait. That's not just weird. That's interesting. Wait. That's not just weird and interesting. That rocks.' That's how you developed a love affair with the music, by being constantly surprised that (a) nobody had made sounds like that with those instruments and (b) it seemed so obvious and inevitable -- why didn't somebody think of that sooner?
The wow is still accessible, nestled inside brains and seeping out of quick-witted fingertips, flying over the fretboards, on Built to Spill's Keep It Like a Secret (Warner Bros.), the best rock record of this still-new year, chock-full of skewed little anthems that float, then sting. It makes the recent spate of dumb-fusion releases sound like the bullshit they are. That's not to say Built to Spill has revolutionized rock; they haven't -- it's tough to imagine how rock as we know it could ever be recast at this point. Outrage and rock in the trad sense is as spent as tender Billy Joel rock. Nashville Pussy is as tired as Bread. How do you shock your parents with rock music? You can't.
In fact, it may be more revolutionary to be traditional. If you add up the superficial ingredients in Keep It Like a Secret, you'll scratch your head. There's no rock star inside:
(1) Doug Martsch, who writes the songs and plays guitar in Built to Spill (it's his band), when contacted for an interview, had to ask permission from his 4-year-old son -- who could be heard to scream, "Vagina!" in the background, to much laughter -- if it would be OK to do an interview.
(2) The band's members still reside in Boise, Idaho, and prefer not to tour.
(3) The main reason Martsch decided to leap from indie label Up Records to Warner Bros. was that the latter label provided health insurance for him, his girlfriend and his son.
(4) No rock-star bravado or posturing: "I'm not a very skilled player at all. I hope that I make up for it with something else, like good ideas, but as far as technical ability, I'm really, really limited. I'm not very confident about my playing and singing, so I tend to add a lot of things to it to make it interesting. I don't feel like I have the magical thing that some people have that they can just do anything and it just sounds great. I don't have that, so I have to add little special things to keep it interesting."
Martsch isn't your average rock dude -- he's not even a dude. He's chronically humble, to the point where you want to shake him and tell him, 'No, really, Doug, you're incredibly talented!' Throughout a discussion on his music, he peppers every guitar-playing reference with an addendum that he's not very good at it. But the "special little things" he adds suggest otherwise: layers upon layers of overdubs, so many that, though Built to Spill is only a three-piece, on record they sound like a bass, drum and guitar symphony.
Guitars soar and tremble, wail like a legion of guitar gods and humbly strum a melody on Keep It Like a Secret. Often the piles of overdubs simultaneously accomplish all of the above. An individual Built to Spill song -- on the new record these stay below the five-minute mark, whereas on their last record, Perfect From Now On, most clocked in at better than seven minutes -- bursts with enough ideas to fill your average 20-minute Phish jam, without sounding confused or chaotic. "If it's an idea that's we think is worth pursuing," Martsch says of the process, "I go ahead and work on it and make a song out of it. I go through a lot of parts on my own before I come up with the ones that become actual songs. Hopefully I've made the right choices at that stage with things that have stuck in my head that I've written -- that I find myself singing or want to go back and play again. Those are the ones that end up becoming songs."
The best songs on Keep it Like a Secret are the most confusing on first listen. A beautiful melody will capture your heart before you hear the lyrics: "Your body breaks, your needs consume you forever/And with this lies the need to be here together." On that song, "Else," Martsch occupies a world that's uncertain, one in which self-consciousness ("Best not talk too loud/You're not as smart as you require of them") mixes with guitar tension that rises and falls with warm strumming and keystroke exclamation points.
Martsch is funny, actually, because he walks the line separating ambivalence and inspiration. He'll say things that make you certain that he thinks about his music often but couple them with facts that suggest the contrary: "I think I went into improvising a bit too much and I stopped playing parts over and over again and lost some of my technical abilities. There wasn't that much to lose, but it's just a matter of practice. That's all it is. I've never really practiced all that much. When we make a record, I write parts and I never practice them. I'll figure out the songs and then do mockups of them in my home studio. And then I'll get into the studio -- I'll just write the part and then not practice it and get into the studio and be like, 'I can't even play that,' and it'll take me 20 times to do it right."
But you can't hear it on the record. What you hear are guitars dancing with each other, working simultaneously to create a whirlwind of melody, while Martsch's high-pitched voice moans and wanders, singing, "You were right when you said we're all just dust in the wind." What Martsch considers "adding things to make it interesting" is in fact pure creativity, a creativity that's not weighed down by pretension or lofty philosophical rationalization. Just new rock music, fresh and free.