Built to Spill are a fine band; most music fans can agree on that. Even a handful of clued-in hippies dig ’em. I don’t listen to BTS often, but for some reason I had the urge to play their 1999 classic Keep it Like a Secret this morning. (Probably because Brooke and I are re-watching the entire series of Six Feet Under, and they played "You Were Right" in an episode we saw last night.)
Recently, Geoff at Blog Sothoth engaged in a "top ten of all time" exercise. In the post, he stated that these records deeply affected him at very specific points in his life, and stood for nothing beyond the fleetingly subjective. We shared a chuckle about The Doors‘ post-Jim Morrison cash-in An American Prayer in the comments. Fun stuff.
It got me thinking about all the bands and records I once loved, but rarely revisit. Built to Spill and Keep it Like a Secret are too often among the ignored.
Listening to the album as I type, I’m instantly transported back to the northern town in which I lived, rocked and wrote from age 19 to 33. I was working in an independent record store when Secret was released, but I never bothered to give it a spin. I’d listened to a fair amount of older BTS, back when they were a "real" indie band, and I associated them with the introspective kids with whom this overly-dramatic, experimental-leaning, dream-pop influenced, heavy metal burnished, psychedelic Lothario had little in common. So I filed the band away among the other haphazard DIY acts that cluttered the latter half of the ’90s. (In my mind, that is — I put them in the right place on the racks.)
It wasn’t until a wintry car ride with Ken Johnson (who had yet to claim the drum stool in Carrigan) that I was hipped to Secret‘s molten guitars and unassuming yet effective wordplay. Ken and I were pretty tight in those days — he lived across the street — and I generally trusted his taste in music. I often consider how important this X factor is in turning people on to new stuff; the messenger’s personality, enthusiasm and righteousness are key to the proper transmission of tunes. Anyway, in Ken, I found someone with a sharp intellect, an appreciation for quality, and, most importantly, a sense of what would and wouldn’t fly with a person as self-mythologizing and persnickety as myself.
He told me I’d like the guitar action, and that some of it reminded him of my own playing. (Now that’s how you win over an egotist, kids.)
Thing is, he was right: much of the axework on KILAS did reflect my guitar leanings. Problem was, I had largely abandoned writing songs, and I didn’t have a Doug Martsch (or Tom Verlaine) with whom to collaborate. I’d recently wrapped up a hitch in a Brit-rock style band, featuring a fairly gifted songwriter/frontman whose style was ultimately too sunny and reductive for my tastes. I craved guitar exploration like on my fave ’70s records, but I needed it to be in service of the song. (In those days I was actually shy about guitar heroism — the then-au courant indie scene equated that shit with hair metal. The fucking idiots.)
The only solution was to play in a math-rock/post-prog band, which subsequently I did. This was before The Mars Volta, mind you. (By then I’d had it with playing live, but that’s another story.)
Let’s get back to Secret. Like I said, the record pushed all the right buttons for me at the time. It was broadly melodic without being precious, and the guitars were bolder and more thoughtfully arranged than pretty much any other "indie" band besides Pavement, who obscured their technique by pretending it was all a shaggy lark. (But who were they fooling? I saw Pavement in ’97, and they sounded exactly like the records — more Steely Dan than Superchunk.)
Besides Ken and my then-girlfriend (who thankfully "got" pretty much all good music) I really didn’t have anyone to share this record with. But that was OK, ’cause I didn’t have anyone to share my guitar athleticism with, either.
But now that I’ve got you guys, I no longer have to keep anything like a secret. Not even my nostalgia.
PS: Did I tell you we walked right past George Tenet the other day? George fuckin’ Tenet!