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Pavement Takes a Hike

Pavement
Just Around the Corners: Pavement is on the verge of fading away before it ever got a chance to burn out.

Photo by Danny Clinch



Being too popular is just too bad for an indie band like Pavement

By Gina Arnold

THE DAY I purchased Pavement's new record, Brighten the Corners (Matador), at my local indie record store, I was surprised to hear the hipper-than-thou store owner dis the band. When I asked how well the album was selling, she sniffed disdainfully and answered, "Sure, I've sold about 30 copies so far, but just to the kind of trend-conscious people who want to buy something safe and easy to listen to."

This conversation made me laugh, because, despite its high profile in the press, Pavement plays music that is still anything but easy to listen to. On the contrary, to most ears, the band's sound is still utterly obtuse.

But Pavement is currently suffering from the old adage "Live by the sword, die by the sword"--the sword in this case being the strict indie-rock elitist rules Pavement claimed to live by at the beginning of its career. Those rules say that a band that's popular is bad; hence Pavement, which has still only barely raised its head above the crowd (despite having played the main stage at Lollapalooza in 1995), now must die.

This phenomenon has happened before in the music business, most memorably in 1987, when both the Replacements and Hüsker Dü lost a huge swath of their audiences well before the masses were ready to embrace them. It took five years for the vast majority of rock fans to hone their listening skills enough to understand the indie ethos, and by that time, those bands had broken up and the world had embraced Nirvana instead.

I doubt that Pavement will be able to gut out the loss of its indie-rock fans any more than the Hüskers did; already Pavement has become what it set out to confound. Originally a studio project begun by songwriters Scott Kannberg and Stephen Malkmus in their hometown of Stockton, the band cultivated a mysterious aura, used pseudonyms and rejected the mainstream by turning down major-label contracts. (They also moved--to New York City, Memphis, Tenn., Virginia and elsewhere. Kannberg now lives in San Francisco; still, the band is invariably billed as being "from Stockton.")

Hard on the heels of those seemingly noble refusals, Pavement quickly became an indie-rock darling, touted by the Village Voice, if not by MTV. The New York Times recently deemed Pavement the head of the "fractured pop" movement, but that's not really an accurate term for the band's distinctive oeuvre.

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Pavement's online.

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The lyrics are fragmentary and surreal, but the music isn't what most people would call pop; in fact, legions of Americans would call it cacophonous, diffuse, even unlistenable. Bits of melody are woven through the tracks, but they fall away as soon as they appear. Although there is a hypnotic, mellow feel to some of the songs, they are not exactly catchy.

On its earlier records, particularly Slanted and Enchanted, and Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, it seemed as if Pavement was inventing a whole new musical language. But not any longer--instead, the band's fifth album, Brighten the Corners, is one long Pavement cliché, a medley of its greatest riffs with no controlling focus or vision to speak of.

The opening track, "Stereo," for example, is Pavement-by-numbers, a meandering "tune" topped by Malkmus' laconic-ironic voice. Here's a sample of some lyrics: "Things they tend to wiggle when the walk / the infrastructure rots, and the owners hate the jocks with their agents and their dates / If the signature's a check, then you'll just have to wait."

Unwedded to the Literal

ELSEWHERE ON the album, Malkmus tells us, "You know the toes are grouped in clusters" and describes a couple as "one of us is a cigar stand / and one of us is a lovely blue and incandescent guillotine." And a whole song has him moaning "We are underused" in a Canned Heat boogie drone.

True, in this day and age, rock bands needn't be wedded to the literal: R.E.M., the Pixies, Nirvana and the Cocteau Twins are all good examples of bands that have written lyrics that were nonlinear but still had very apparent meanings. Pavement's lyrics, however, though at times poetic ("The edge of creation is blurred and blushed / not a lot of room to grow inside this lovely terrarium"), can also seem like so much self-generated nonsense.

Earlier Pavement work has been equally allusive but somehow more heartfelt. "Summer Babe," for example, off the wonderful Slanted and Enchanted album, was a perfect blend of sound and meaning. Now, however, that blend is gone; the sounds are inert, and the meaning, at best, is too personal for us to understand.

Oddly, Malkmus himself seems to be addressing the problem in places, shouting out against this kind of minute criticism. "I don't need your summary ax / to give in to the narrative edge," he sings on "Old to Begin," and the point is well taken: Pavement's sound is still quite distinctive. Even if its meaning is often furred and its musical line unedited, that is part of the band's charm.

To me, however, a problem with Pavement's current work is the pervasive lack of a definitive rhythm--a particularly odd circumstance given that the band began with two drummers (a la the Grateful Dead and the Butthole Surfers). Indeed, songs like the EP Slay Track's "Box Elder," Slanted's "Trigger Cut" and even Crooked Rain's "Gold Soundz" were actually rhythm driven, and their infectious groove helped sustain the listener across all manner of arty surrealness.

On Brighten the Corners, however, the drummer is almost nonexistent, and when he does appear, it's only in the most basic and uninventive manner. There are a lot of ballads here, and none of them is as evocative as "Zurich Is Stained." On the other hand, "Transport Is Arranged" and "Type Slowly," although pleasant enough numbers, are pretty much lacking in both energy and depth.

Brighten the Corners boasts several genuinely pretty moments. "Embassy Row" has a nice rocking chorus; "Shady Lane" starts out well before turning into mush; "Type Slowly" and "Starlings of the Slipstream" are very nearly songs in the traditional sense.

But that's just not enough brilliance to justify Pavement's reputation. Although I still think my indie record dealer was too quick to dismiss Pavement on the specious grounds of overpopularity, I'm afraid she's right on in terms of Pavement's own lack of inspiration.

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From the March 13-19, 1997 issue of Metro

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