Built to Spill
Keep It Like a Secret
(Warner Bros.)

Since the dawn of psychedelic music in 1966-1967, rock auteurs have searched for ways to stretch the pop song into longer and wider shapes.

But it's unlikely that anyone has ever expanded the form with more twisted grace than Doug Martsch, mastermind of Boise, Idaho's Built to Spill. Martsch's epics have next to nothing in common with the unwieldy blues jams and art-rock indulgences that broke rock's three-minute sound barrier three decades ago. Martsch's songs move organically from one theme to another, driven by symphonic guitar tapestries and dramatic rhythmic shifts.

Built to Spill's fifth album, Keep It Like a Secret (its second for Warner Bros.), doesn't represent a major departure from the established blueprint, but the familiar Martsch elements meld so perfectly that the result nonetheless feels like a milestone, a breakthrough of some kind.

When his angelic tenor rubs up against the dissonant guitar assault of the album-opening "The Plan," the friction creates a dream mixture of Pavement, Sebadoh and Bedhead--arty without being stuffy, poppy without being dumb. On the lengthy album closer, "Broken Chairs," the band spends the final four minutes wrapping various guitar parts around each other, and the track never wears out its welcome.

Best of all, Martsch is smart enough not to take his considerable gifts very seriously. The album's giddiest track, "You Were Right," mocks the very idea of lyric writing by lifting every dinosaur-rock cliche he can remember: "You were right when you said all we are is dust in the wind/You were right when you said we were all just bricks in the wall."

Coming from Pavement, the gimmick would probably reek of condescending irony, but Martsch has the rare ability to be sincere and sardonic at the same time. Based on this album's wealth of riches, it'll be harder than ever for fans of this band to keep it like a secret.

--Gilbert Garcia

Various artists
Postpunk Chronicles: Left of the Dial
Postpunk Chronicles: Going Underground
Postpunk Chronicles: Scared to Dance
(Rhino Records)

Judging by the briskness with which Attention Deficit Disordered American audiences now dispense with their favorite artists after one hit album, it would seem we're not unlike the self-proclaimed music "snobs" who annotate this entertaining three-volume series of late-'70s, early-'80s "postpunk" music.

The major difference is that nowadays, popular bands become unpopular because we hear how many units weren't sold the first week. If an artist's record does nothing right away, good luck finding an article or review about it. In their youth, these postpunk compilers looked for and championed obscure bands in the import bins, and only proceeded to dump them when their records turned up at the neighborhood mall at domestic prices. Some of their comments are priceless put-downs you'd find yourself hearing at a party while some elitist is perusing through your record collection. Take this spot-on assessment of Simple Minds: "One of the many bands that started out innovative, influential and exciting and wound up--ugh!" Or "Morrissey should've thrown in the towel after this one ('What Difference Does It Make,' the first Smiths single)." And imagine a time when Thomas Dolby wasn't considered a joke artist. His "Airwaves" single was produced by XTC's Andy Partridge and featured a melody line that would take nine months for Billy Joel to rip off with "Goodnight Saigon." Talk about cutting-edge stuff!

No wonder punk was pronounced dead so quickly. By definition it was such a narrow music form, the minute you'd add horns or a synth, it became something else. Instead of being a collection of obvious hits, Postpunk Chronicles is filled with lesser celebrated singles like The Raincoats' "No One's Little Girl" and Pere Ubu's "Final Solution," tracks that sound as innovative today as they were then. If you had a friend with eclectic taste that ran heavy on the English stuff, this is what his party mix tape would sound like. There's no logic going from The Teardrop Explodes to Billy Bragg, but the first two volumes manage to flow smoothly with the up-close-and-impersonal sounds of Left of the Dial (Cocteau Twins, Joy Division, The Chills) having the slight advantage over the others. It's a worthwhile musical lesson from a period richer than we ever gave it credit for. If even one of these songs had dented America's Top 40, we probably would've. And those songs probably wouldn't have ended up here.

--Serene Dominic

Negro Necro Nekros
(Gern Blandsten)

Not in the two decades since Afrika Bambaataa stapled together sonic blueprints as disparate as electronic Krautrock and funk has a rap artist so cleverly fused divergent musical genres into a cohesive whole. Combining the Velvet Underground's feedback frenzy, Public Enemy's apocalyptic intellect, Ravi Shankar's sitar drone, Ice T's sneering delivery and De La Soul's inventive sampling, Dalek demonstrates a reinvestment in hip-hop's foundation as a cross-cultural collage of sounds. While much of the current crop of rap stars is contented to rewire tried-and-true pop hits, or limit its sampling sources to soul, funk and/or other rappers, Dalek vehemently dislodges hip-hop from these insular tendencies.

On this five-song debut, MC Dalek--along with DJ Octopus--introduces an earnest mission to revitalize hip-hop as an underground phenomenon. The duo's modus operandi combines incendiary rap with transgeneric elements such as classical, Indian raga, postpunk and urban noise.

Blessed with an impressive musical literacy, Dalek pours the swirling fray of their sonic cauldron into the opener, "Swollen Tongue Blues." Overdriven drums and droning sound layers bustle over the top of a hushed loop of electric piano as Dalek announces, "witness the birth of the first child." Soon, screeching electronics are smeared against an orchestral crescendo to accentuate Dalek's urgent alliteration.

Infusing the drone styles of Middle Eastern music to rock rhythms may be nothing new, but Negro Necro Nekros never allows particular sonic textures to be reduced to gimmickry. Instead, a piano or guitar or classical music sample is often paired with twanging sitar tones. At times like this, Dalek creates what sounds like a unique new instrument.

--Dave Clifford