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Built to Spill carries on the guitar solo tradition

Are they a jam band or alternative rock? One thing for sure, they’re noisy
Doug Martsch, of the band Built to Spill, plays his guitar in his home in Boise, Idaho Monday morning, April 17, 2006. Martsch's group will be starting a new tour soon to coincide with the release of a new album. Martsch is currently recovering at home from recent eye surgery. Troy Maben / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

It sometimes seems as though the guitar solo, that staple of rock 'n' roll, has noodled its way into obscurity.

Much of today's rock looks elsewhere for its bravado. More common is a tight, methodical churning, epitomized by bands like the Strokes, Interpol and Arcade Fire. For even the head-banging, guitar-crazy My Morning Jacket, the climax of a song is often when everyone is simultaneously playing the same thing.

The solo, perhaps, is not cool. It can seem showy and call to mind the '80s extravagance of Eddie Van Halen's masturbatory tapping or Slash's cigarette-puffing wails in the middle of some desert.

There are, of course, many exceptions to this long-developing trend. Music is far too expansive to allow the guitar solo to be pigeonholed as dead. Many remaining six-string aficionados know their way around the fretboard — and aren't afraid to show it.

Chief among the standard-bearers is Built to Spill. Combining personal songwriting with jamming of intricate interplay, the Boise, Idaho, band has been pumping out Neil Young-inspired guitar assaults for more than 14 years.

Though typically considered one of the most popular bands in indie rock, Built to Spill tends to straddle genres. They're not on an indie label, but Warner Bros., and have been called "a jam band for people who don't like jam bands" by The Washington Post.

Built to Spill is essentially Doug Martsch's group. He is singer, songwriter and guitarist, and is flanked by two more guitarists: Jim Roth and Brett Netson, both recently made official members. Roth had previously toured with the band and Netson, also known for his group Caustic Resin, has long been a collaborator. Scott Plouf (drums) and Brett Nelson (bass) have been with Built to Spill from the start.

Indie music Web site Pitchfork Media has written, "Doug Martsch and Built to Spill come to us from another time, a less cynical era that believed in the transcendent power of the solo."

Their recently released album, "You in Reverse," opens with the 8-minute, 42-second "Goin' Against Your Mind" — a torrid, rocking announcement that Built to Spill is back after a five-year break from the studio. It's over two minutes — and at least three guitar parts — before Martsch sings the first line.

"People think that we don't understand/ what it takes to want to be a man/ I don't care much for that," he sings in his singular, nasal voice.

For just as long as the 36-year-old Martsch has been hailed as a guitar god, he's denied having any technical virtuosity.

"Just the fact that there's long guitar solos, people think, `Well, someone's not going to do that unless they're real good at it,'" Martsch says.

Martsch says he comes from the "school of J. Mascis" (of Dinosaur Jr.) or Neil Young about whom he says: "He's not doing anything that anyone else couldn't do, it's more about the feel of it than the technical ability."

Plus, he thinks there's "confusion about what I even do in the band." After BTS's 2002 album, "Perfect From Now On," he was compared by The New York Times to Jimi Hendrix — but Martsch says Netson was responsible for that playing more than he.

"You would watch him play and it wouldn't seem like he was really that into it and his fingers are never hardly moving at all," he says of Netson. "And then you close your eyes and it just sounds incredible, like this wall of craziness."

What's staggering about Built to Spill is the layered, interweaving guitar work — one part swooning, one part jabbing — on songs like "Time Trap" off their 1999 masterpiece, "Keep it Like a Secret." They've also covered Young's epic "Cortez the Killer" and played (earnestly and with precision) the most famous guitar song of all time, Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Free Bird."

But that's only half of the Built to Spill story. Martsch's melodies and lyrics are central. He's shown a penchant for turning smart, wry phrases — as on the menacing "I Would Hurt a Fly" or "Carry the Zero," where he extends a mathematical metaphor: "You've become ... a fraction of the sum."

One of their best known songs is about lyrics themselves. On "You Were Right," Martsch sings, "You were right/ when you said manic depression's a frustrating mess." The allusion, of course, is to Hendrix's "Manic Depression" and is followed by other, similarly wise lyrics of Bob Dylan, Pink Floyd and others.

That songwriting craft is still evidenced on "You in Reverse," most notably on the lilting "Saturday": "And I'm glad/ you're not like us/ and by us/ I mean everyone in the world who isn't you."

In general, the album has a looser feel than prior Built to Spill records. Where Martsch might have previously worked alone on the intricacies of various parts, this time the band collaborated more.

"I didn't feel like I had to pack every moment with excitement," he says. "We did so much jamming and I kind of grew to like the jams, so I wanted it to retain that feel — even if it wasn't that great sounding, even if someone was doing something that could have been played better by trying it again."

Martsch, who lives with his family in Idaho, has been recuperating from eye surgery he had in February to repair a detached retina. On a quiet night, his vision in one eye suddenly disappeared, forcing the surgery — and delaying an already scheduled spring tour until June.

Still wearing an eye patch, he's very upbeat about Built to Spill. After their previous album, "Ancient Melodies of the Future," he felt burnt-out and tired of alternative rock. In its place, he developed a love for reggae and soul music — which feeds into the new material.

"I guess I realized that I could pull things off that could be soulful without making reggae or soul music," he says.

Now re-energized, Martsch is excited about the band's new direction — while at the same, he says, "accepting that we're white guys that can play our instruments OK."