January 10 — “Carry the Zero” by Built to Spill

If you listen to just one song today, make it “Carry the Zero” by Built to Spill (1999, from the album Keep it Like a Secret).

For a long time, Built to Spill was one of my favorite bands. Keep it Like a Secret is, by a narrow margin, my favorite proper album of theirs. It’s full of songs that I adore, but none more than “Carry the Zero”. I can’t say for sure that it’s my favorite song from their entire catalog, but it’s my favorite song from my favorite record of theirs.

Around the time this record came out, Built to Spill was constantly touring. It seemed like they rolled through Chapel Hill three times with that album. One of those shows ended up being one of my favorite concert experiences ever.

It’s pretty clear to see the influence of bands like Dinosaur Jr on this album. It’s also clear to see the influence of classic rock. That influence is put on display in the song “You Were Right”, where about a dozen fixtures of classic rock are namechecked.

This song may or may not be about telling somebody off for being shallow, or phony, or a completely different person from who they used to be.

After the first “verse”, there’s a musical interlude. I like to think of this as a time when whoever’s doing the telling off is starting to stew about it. The break lasts a minute, and then the tone is quite different. More scathing. If this followed a standard verse/chorus motif, there would be another break at the end of the second “verse”, but that structure goes out the window. And I like that instead of culling the lyrics to make it fit a verse/chorus template or doing something mathy, Doug Martsch just throws that awkward “third verse” out there, running the second “verse” straight into it. There’s no fussing over the meter or a bridge or anything like that.

Maybe that is “mathy”. Maybe it’s sloppy. Whatever it is, I dig it.

I love the lines

… And you’re so occupied with what other persons are occupied with
And vice versa
And you’ve become what you thought was dumb.
A fraction of the sum

One thing that’s brilliant about this album is that Built to Spill had signed to a major label (Warner Brothers), but they maintained their creative control. And they didn’t compromise their style. While this record did enjoy some mainstream commercial success, I don’t think it panned out quite the way Warner Bros wanted it to. It worked out for everyone else, though.

Then again, come to think of it… This song might be from an outsider’s point of view. Someone who’s mad at Built to Spill for signing a major label contract. Probably not, but we’ve all seen and heard that kind of reaction when a band sells a song for a beer commercial or something like that. “Man, I’m not knocking their want to carry that home (i.e. make money), but they’ve become what they thought was dumb. A fraction of the sum (i.e. a sellout)”

Buy Keep it Like a Secret from the band’s website here. It looks like the only physical format available is CD.

About dlee

North Carolina born and bred. I'm a restaurant guy who spends free time listening to music, watching hockey and playing Scrabble. I have a bachelor's degree in political science and I will most likely never put it to use. View all posts by dlee

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