Secret Stars

If you're Built to Spill's Doug Martsch, you can have it both ways: Sign with a major label and keep your indie-rock credibility; maintain a successful band and a happy family without disrupting either; live in relative isolation in the cultural hinterland of Boise, Idaho, and still be one of the most revered musicians around. You don't have to make many compromises if the only two things that matter are your family and your music, in that order, and the two are so intertwined at times they're more like one thing. Everything else is irrelevant, even the music occasionally, because as long as he's a good husband and father, Martsch doesn't need anything else.

Martsch makes it look simple, and to him it is. He lives in Boise because that's where he and his wife, Karena, grew up, and that's where they want to raise their son, Ben. Martsch signed with Warner Bros. Records in 1995 not because he had stars in his eyes but to enable him to quit his job as a bartender and spend more time at home, a move with which even the most elitist members of the indie-rock community couldn't find fault. And he schedules his band's infrequent tours so they take him away from his family for only a couple weeks at a time, inadvertently making every Built to Spill show an event.

But none of this would be possible if Martsch wasn't so talented -- if he didn't play guitar like the missing link in the guitar-hero chain between Jimi Hendrix and Johnny Marr, if he didn't write songs as challenging technically as they are emotionally. Martsch's skill with a guitar in his hands and a microphone in his face gives him freedom to do whatever he wants, so he does. Ultimately it doesn't matter where he lives or for what label he records, because he is so adept at creating majestic guitar-pop -- especially on Built to Spill's recently released Keep It Like a Secret -- that where it comes from isn't important.

It wasn't always so easy for Martsch though -- at least musically. Everything else took care of itself. Major labels found him after Built to Spill's 1994 album There's Nothing Wrong With Love, starting a major-label bidding war for Martsch's services, leading to the sizable contract he signed with Warner Bros. And he kept one foot in the underground by releasing a split EP with fellow Idahoans Caustic Resin on Up Records in 1995 and putting together a compilation of Built to Spill's early singles (including the excellent Doug-and-a-guitar "Girl") and rarities for Calvin Johnson's K Records in 1996, as well as continuing to record for K with his side project with Johnson, Halo Benders.

Overcoming his insecurities was more of a problem. Two years ago he was dissatisfied with the direction in which his music was headed, seriously questioning the songs he was writing, ready to reject them all and start over. And after those songs were released, the ones that made up Built to Spill's debut for Warner Bros. -- 1997's Perfect From Now On -- he did, badmouthing the disc in interviews and performing only parts of a couple of the songs in concert. Perfect From Now On went through three completely different versions before Martsch was ready to move on, but he was never pleased with the results. Only now has Martsch begun to come around on the record, able to see it for what it is instead of what he wanted it to be.

"It was kind of like I bit off more than I could chew in a lot of ways," Martsch says of Perfect From Now On's sprawling songs, all eight of which clock in at more than five minutes each. "When I was done with it, it didn't sound like I imagined it at all. Since then I've come to terms with it, and I like it. I like it better than what I had in mind for it probably. I kinda just wanted something that was flowing from thing to thing, you know? I don't really remember what exactly I had in mind."

Martsch's misgivings aside, Perfect From Now On is one of the best albums released this decade, a disc of six- and seven-minute songs that feel too short, careening wildly between gentle jangle and searing solos, quiet introspective moments and big rock moves. Splitting the difference between Roger Waters and Lou Barlow, songs like "Out of Site" and "Randy Described Eternity" are epic in length but small enough to fit in your pocket, guitar symphonies written by a man who's a singer-songwriter at heart -- though he insists lyrics are an afterthought. Perfect From Now On is a Saturday night record that sounds just as beautiful on a Sunday morning. It may not have turned out as Martsch imagined, but you can't think of anything that should be different, that could be different.

And Keep It Like a Secret is even better, Martsch's eloquent guitar voice and little-boy tenor dueling until three minutes feel like forever, and you almost wish they would last that long. In a sense it's the complete opposite of Perfect From Now On (read: much shorter songs). Yet it's also a continuation of that record, as songs such as "Carry the Zero" retain Perfect's boundless riffs and disjointed arrangements, using both to great effect as a lazy walk through the park becomes a sprint to the finish line, paced by a half-dozen separate melodies. The euphoric "Sidewalk" is one of the best bits of psychedelic pop to emerge in a decade, and "Broken Chairs" (featuring Quasi's Sam Coomes on keyboards) slowly disintegrates into beautiful chaos over the course of its eight minutes. It's the kind of record you can hear in your head hours after it's stopped playing.

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