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Field Notes: The members of Pavement are standouts in their field.

Pavement heads for the twilight with new 'Terror' album

By Gina Arnold

ONE OF THE MANY wonderful things about pop music is how fast it makes the time go by. Really, if it weren't for Casey Kasem's American Top 40, how would we even know that culture was ever changing? Take songs like "Can't Touch That" by MC Hammer or "Wannabe" by the Spice Girls. Both now sound like yesterday's papers, as dated as "Stardust" or "How Much Is That Doggy in the Window?"

Indeed, the past often seems really near to me until I put it in terms of music. For example, when the Clash covered "I Fought the Law" by the Bobby Fuller Four, I thought the song was as ancient as the hills. In fact, it was only 11 years past at the time, far younger by comparison than the recent ska cover of Dexys Midnight Runners' 18-year-old song "Come on, Eileen."

And it works the other way as well. For example, back in the '80s, I used to see ads for club gigs by Jorma Kaukonen, the Jefferson Airplane's original bassist. "Old hippie!" my friends and I would sneer. Now Kaukonen, who plays the Fillmore on July 8, seems almost as contemporary as the band that plays the next night, Pavement--which is to say, not at all.

Ten years ago, when Pavement first crept shyly out of Stockton with a record called Slay Tracks, its sound was as new and as revelatory as any in indie rock. But now--already!--the band has more in common with Kaukonen, the Meat Puppets and the Grateful Dead than with any current groups.

AND WHAT A SHORT, strange trip it's been! Seems like one minute I was driving to Sacramento to see one of Pavement's first live dates in this area--and the next I was listening, aghast, to its 1995 LP, Wowee Zowee, and wondering what went wrong.

In between, there was a host of great music, songs and shows that defined a brief sunny era of early-'90s indie rock. But Pavement really pissed me off four years ago at an outdoor show on the University of Chicago campus. That day, the bandmembers played an arrogant and desultory set with their backs turned to the audience. The concert took place just prior to Pavement's stint with Lollapalooza, and the band had been elevated by Spin and other hipster cabals way above its natural place in the scheme of things.

Good though Pavement is--and there was a time when I adored the band--it seemed to have been fatally damaged by indie-rock attitude and adulation. The final proof come on 1997's Brighten the Corners, a smug exercise in self-satisfaction. Listening to its droning, sing-song attitudinizing, I had a hard time remembering just how beautiful Pavement's music could be.

Happily, with its most recent offering, Terror Twilight (Matador), the band has clearly come to its senses. Simply put, the music is flat-out lovely. Pavement has dropped its pretensions and stopped worrying about what people think of them.

Now, instead of using all sorts of obfuscatory bullshit, Pavement has even reverted to such traditional tacks as a list of thank-yous on the CD cover and a song-sequence that puts the best track, "Spit on a Stranger," first, thus leaving the listener wanting to hear more--and more and more. Other songs with that same kind of lilting, melodic edge include "You Are a Light," "Major Leagues" and "Speak, See, Remember."

All the songs rely on a surprisingly pokey tempo that only serves to emphasize singer Steven Malkmus' Californiate voice. At his worst--that is, on "Platform Blues" and "Billie"--Malkmus sounds like a much more pretentious Shawn Mullins. At his best, and on more openhearted songs like "Dear Ann," he sounds like George Harrison, especially the George of "While My Guitar Gently Weeps."

The album is all very smooth and easy to listen to. By the time one gets to the end, however, the relentlessly slow tempo has become a bit of a drag on the psyche. But the last song, "... and Carrot Rope," rivals Pavement zeniths like "Two States," "Gold Soundz" and "Summer Babe."

And if the record's mid-tempo nature is slightly reminiscent of hippie bands like the Allman Brothers, at least there's no boring feedback-filled nonsense here. Instead, leaders Malkmus and Scott Kannberg have chosen to use their strengths--poetic lyrics, noodling but listenable guitar passages and a sort of low-key aural humility that somehow got lost in the hectic swirl of the mid-1990s prostration-before-hipness--to their best advantage.

OF COURSE, such musical tactics as Pavement now reveals may not equal the burningly youthful charm of "Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain" and "Slanted and Enchanted," but how could they? You can't be that revelatory twice.

Terror Twilight returns Pavement halfway to its place as one of the better bands of the decade. But it also reveals just how anachronistic this type of all-guy, guitar-oriented, R.E.M.- and Velvet Underground-influenced band has become--particularly on the slower, more meandering, songs, like the truly annoying "Platform Blues" and "Folk Jam." Nowadays, a band that merely uses guitars and narrative song structures sounds positively old-fashioned, like it belongs on the H.O.R.D.E. tour, not on Lollapalooza.

The new album is far more coherent and consistent than Pavement's other recent records. But the question is, has it come too late? Pavement might have worn out its welcome with the überhip, who aren't inclined to like a record with this many jams and ballads. And who is going to replace them as Pavement's new audience? Not teenyboppers, that's for sure. Britney Spears doesn't need to worry: this is a band whose hold on the zeitgeist was always pretty darn delicate.

I mean, to buy into Pavement you have to buy into its vision--and on Terror Twilight, that vision is fuzzy and internalized. That very vagueness used to seem so groovy, but now I'm not sure. I mean, who are these guys? Do they think the same things and feel the same things we do or have they been locked into the tour-record-backstage world so long that they can no longer touch us with their weird poetry and romantic lifestyle?

On one of his more direct lyrics, Malkmus calls himself a "cold, cold boy with an American heart," and the description is both dead-on and unattractive. But no one ever said that Malkmus wasn't smart. "Be patient," he sings wistfully later on the record, "and I'll let you see my carrot-rope."

He sounds like he knows he's drowning in a sea of careerists and young people with more ambition than he has, that success came too soon and no longer intrigues him, that he needs a new carrot held in front of his nose--like a rope dropped into his life to keep him from drowning--to keep himself involved.

And the thing is, so do I. I'm not sure Terror Twilight is quite a strong enough carrot-rope to pull me out of my torpor, but it has moments when it makes me lift my head up and smile, and that's something. That is definitely something.

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From the June 24-30, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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