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Built To Spill "Keep It Like a Secret" - Retrospective Review

10/10

Built to Spill "Keep It Like a Secret" - Retrospective Review

Within the realm of indie rock, there are so many albums I wish I could experience for the first time again. The profound personal impact of records like Turn on the Bright Lights by Interpol, Doolittle by Pixies, Wincing the Night Away by The Shins, and The Queen Is Dead by The Smiths really stands out for me. But there’s another, somewhat under-the-radar record I’d add to that list: Built to Spill’s fourth studio album, Keep It Like a Secret. The album’s third track, Carry the Zero, has been called the most underrated rock song of all time on multiple occasions. Despite this, Keep It Like a Secret remains just that—a secret to many. With its hypnotic melodies and expertly crafted songs, it flies under the radar for mainstream listeners and even some indie fans.


Released in 1999, two years after the acclaimed Perfect from Now On and five years after the even more celebrated There's Nothing Wrong With Love, Keep It Like a Secret outshone both by our metrics. The album predominantly features the work of just three musicians, with frontman Doug Martsch’s extensive guitar layering creating a massive amount of well-rounded sound. This is particularly evident in the last two minutes or so of Carry the Zero, which could easily be deemed the most impressive two minutes of indie music in the decade. As soon as Doug delivers the last line of the tune, the drums intensify and the guitar dominates as the trio unleashes a symphonic power. Producer Phil Ek ensures every element is mixed to perfection, making it a truly explosive musical experience.

Throughout the record, Martsch blends bright, clean-sounding guitar tones with heavier, more reverb-laced playing, constantly changing the feel as the album's 51 minutes unfold. The heavier guitar tones in tracks like Carry the Zero and Sidewalk are crisply counterbalanced by mellower, distinctly beautiful tunes such as Else and Temporary Blind, though the band generally favors louder sounds over softer ones. Else, the most mellow tune on the album, again showcases Doug's skill in guitar expression, favoring layered guitar lines that weave back and forth to create the melody. While Jim Roth is credited on the album, his rhythm guitar contributions are limited to just Center of the Universe, You Were Right, and Broken Chairs. For the most part, it's all Doug Martsch driving the guitar play across the 10 tracks, without a single dud in the mix.


Temporary Blind puts Doug’s guitar playing in its most exposed position throughout with its clean, vulnerable guitar breaks, complimenting the louder, screeching guitar breaks in You Were Right. Given all Martsch’s references to songs of the past in You Were Right, there were some initial copyright fears which never grew to be a concern, leaving in a lyrically interesting song, with listeners listening closely to which references they can match the tune to. Of course though, aside from Carry the Zero, the other tune from the record frequently gifted perfect marks from by listeners is the closer, Broken Chairs.

Broken Chairs kicks off with a catchy, fuzz-laden melody before swiftly shifting gears. After just the first few measures, the track dives into a heavier, half-time feel that dominates the rest of its eight-and-a-half-minute runtime. Packed with a slew of powerful guitar hooks and compelling musical ideas, Broken Chairs has become a fan favorite and a staple of live shows. Broken Chairs exhibit's Built To Spill's gift or crafting diverse yet coexisting musical elements, captivating listeners with its dynamic shifts and intricate layering.


Keep It Like a Secret showcases the underrated band's most complex and concise release of the decade, creating ten uniquely interesting tunes with a newfound sound that still remains whole-heartedly Built to Spill. Balancing accessibility with complexity and traditional indie songwriting ideals, Keep It Like a Secret serves as a non post-punk, top-shelf blueprint for indie rock bands, cited as influential by Modest Mouse, The Shins, The National, Real Estate, and many more. Taking it a step further, in Phil Ek’s post-Keep It Like a Secret work, the sound of this album can still be heard continuously, no matter the artist, showing that from a producer’s standpoint, you simply can’t do much better than this.

Above all, Keep It Like a Secret exemplifies the fact that for newer and existing indie fans alike, there are many great under-the-radar records just waiting to be discovered—or rediscovered by those who may have forgotten them over the years. Masterful, exciting, and moving are just a few of the reasons this record ranks so high on my list of albums I deeply wish I could listen to again for the first time.


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