It's funny that Guitar Hero is such a popular game in this decade. Mainstream musicians with the chops to merit the title "guitar hero" are scarce. We have no modern equivalent to Hendrix, Gilmour or Page. Those who are still around (John Frusciante, Nels Cline, Eddie Van Halen) were cutting their teeth 20+ years ago, and the competition was stiff. Frankly, guitar heroics in pop music have been dead since the mid-90s when metal went underground and the pop landscape was flooded with average strummers who relied on witty wordplay or knew their way around a studio. Enter Doug Martsch and his band Built To Spill. Martsch is carrying the progressive torch in pop-rock's simplistic landscape and no other album in BTS' catalog exemplifies his abilities better than Keep It Like A Secret.
Now, Martsch isn't a master at two-hand tapping. He doesn't play his guitar behind his head or rip white-hot leads. No, his importance rests in his tone and imaginative and melodic lines, of which he has an abundance. This is exemplified in opener "The Plan," which varies between crashing chords, a winding two-note octave solo, and a springy passage of static and feedback. Then, on "Carry The Zero," Martsch opens up, soloing over the first chorus by letting each note sustain and swell to feedback before sliding to the next one. The tone is so lush it sounds like honey oozing out of the speakers. Another example of Martsch's control is the opening to "Time Trap" which bubbles up from a rattling hum into a soaring crescendo. Throughout Keep It Like a Secret, Built To Spill jams, not in an aimless navel-gazing sense, but instead utilizing a vibrant sonic palette and a keen sense for editing.
Martsch's guitar playing isn't the only factor in the success of Keep It Like a Secret. The rest of the band deftly holds their own as the album progresses and Martsch's lyrics more than match his playing. Interestingly, Martsch has said in interviews that the words are an afterthought; they are based on which vowels fit the melodies. This is apparent as none of the lyrics are linear but lines like "didn't add up, forgot to carry the zero" and "I don't like this air, but that doesn't mean I'll stop breathing it" are far from pedestrian. Plus, in Martsch's hands they all sound great.
Almost all of Built To Spill's catalog is worth exploring. There's Nothing Wrong With Love, Perfect From Now On and You In Reverse are all highly recommended. Another step would be the Live album as it contains songs from three of their best albums as well as some excellent covers of Neil Young and Love as Laughter. Plus, hearing the band live solidifies Martsch's status as a guitar legend.