Doug Martsch, the soul and pulse of Built to Spill, was never much of a rock 'n' roll egoist. And now that his band is on hiatus and he's doing the solo-album thing, he sounds even less like one.
With Now You Know, Martsch continues to whittle his songwriting down to its pure emotional essence. While alterna-grunge was high on irony and angst, Built to Spill stood for honesty and sincerity. (Calling an album There's Nothing Wrong with Love at the height of the era was one bold, warm middle finger to all that gloom.) Likewise, Martsch -- a quiet homebody happy to live out in Idaho -- boasted one of the most expressive yet subtle guitars of the '90s -- and a human, charming voice to match. On its most recent records, BTS had eschewed extended instrumental jams for compact melancholy. As Martsch was saying more with fewer notes, his progress was misinterpreted as a loss of creativity.
The similar lack of excitement over Now You Know seems to be indicative of the fact that fans of Built to Spill want Martsch as he once was -- the loud, sensitive, six-string hero for shy romantics everywhere. Instead, Now You Know is a contemplative blues- and folk-soaked shadow of an album. Its laid-back air will confuse and frustrate indie kids desperate for another galvanizing guitar experience.
Regardless, Martsch's fine delivery and supple playing continue to enthrall, even if the volume has been reduced. "Heart (Things Never Shared)" drips with regret, while "Offer" channels an urgency through a simple slide-guitar line. Accompanying himself on almost all 11 tracks, he has never sounded this alone. But even if the album reverberates with a beaten-down exhaustion, don't doubt that the man's muse remains vital. After all, Built to Spill was always about the exploration of common-man needs and fears: loneliness, love, and life outside the spectrum of MTV and America's media centers. This new album -- stripped down, frank, and unvarnished -- takes these principles to their natural conclusion. Now you know.
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