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Reflections on Pavement

When so-called “important” bands posthumously reissue their albums, there’s not always a lot to be said about them.  This is usually because the band doesn’t have any more to say the second time around and only further cement their place in the back pages of online music chronicles.

Thankfully, the same cannot be said of Matador’s reissues of the Pavement catalog, most obviously since the band has released as much new material in the 2000s as in the 90s. 95% of which sounds like it could have been created yesterday and all of which is better than anything actually created yesterday.

Amazingly the band’s first three reissues had B-sides that matched the quality of the songs on the original albums.  This shouldn’t be surprising since, like the kid in high school who claimed never to study but still managed straight A’s, Pavement never put that much of themselves into any one recording.  Most of the material was composed and recorded in a few takes, which is the case with many “slacker” bands, but the quality of the music is profound given its loose, free-flowing vibe.  I feared that the more concentrated, mature sounds of Brighten the Corners might result in a dilution of the quality of its B-Sides (as was the case with some of the second disc of Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain’s: LA’s Desert Origins), but they are simply reflective of the album cuts–focused, restrained, more curt and confident than Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain.

Where Wowee Zowee laid bare all of the group’s influences, Brighten the Corners tightens them back into an aesthetic that is distinctly Pavement.  The country-western twang of “Father to a Sister of Thought” is reworked into the structure of “Type Slowly”, and then spit back out as “Slowly Typed”, one of “Shady Lane”‘s B-sides.  The picture-perfect pop of “Kennel District” takes flight as “Date w/ IKEA” and reaches an ironic apex with the vulgar “No Tan Lines”.  The punk attitude of “Flux=Rad” fits into the verses of “Embassy Row” and works perfectly as the irreverent “Wanna Mess You Around”.  The rampant chromaticism that Wowee Zowee channeled from 50s bebop is reserved for intense blasts at just the right moment–in the bridge of “Transport is Arranged”, after the first chorus of “Stereo”, the divine solo that closes “Fin”.  But more than any of these, the hallmark of Brighten the Corners is its majestic warmth.  For a band whose aesthetic originally was rudimentary at best, the sounds of this album are pristine, they recreate the sensation of natural light better than an indoor growing lamp.

As a result, the constant complexity of having melodic phrases competing with various overdubs that characterized Crooked Rain and Wowee Zowee are sacrificed in favor of more straightforward lines.  Note how the cluttered intro of “Harness Your Hopes” explodes into a shimmering four-chord pop song.  Note also, the harpsichord intro on “We Are Underused” getting cut off by resounding dominant chords.  Brighten the Corners has the sound of a band who no longer need to do everything they can to make their mistakes sound purposeful, because they’re in complete control of their instruments.  Nowhere is this mastery more evident than in the live recording of “Type Slowly”, allegedly their first performance together in several months.

I wish the disc had included more live highlights, or at least I wish the live album they were adding to the buyearlygetnow.com package was on CD.  Live, Pavement really opened up and became one of the more honest bands on stage.  I say this having never seen them in person, but all of their recorded footage embodies the spirit of five people doing what comes naturally to them and having the time of their lives in the process.  The songs mutated throughout the tours as they saw fit, and their onstage attitudes were as relaxed and comedic as the albums would suggest.  Stephen Malkmus’ easy improvisation, vocally and on guitar (in a couple dozen different tunings, no less) leave little doubt as to his status as the most charmingly charismatic frontman in indie music, if not all of recorded music.  His lyrical flow probably peaked around the release of Brighten the Corners, and while the density of what changes in the lyrics might be better suited to post-structuralist English doctoral dissertations, suffice to say that Malkmus no longer plays the sullen underdog, and begins to push his ego to the forefront of the music.  Where before he may have begun to say something meaningful and then offer everything in the world to cover it up, it’s around the time of Brighten the Corners that Malkmus actually begins to let his observations stand on their own, or even search through the vast haze of logos for some backup.

I’d like to see them live one day.  But not at the cost of that freewheeling spirit that characterized the band in the 90s.  Malkmus has stated that he wouldn’t mind doing “something like the Zeppelin thing in 10 years” where they play all the hits but I wouldn’t want the performance to be a chore and I certainly wouldn’t want it to be a one-night stand like that.  I wouldn’t want another reunion of one of my favorite bands that was ultimately a let down.  After seeing the Jicks live a few times I’ve been completely impressed, and if SM is happier in that band I hold no ill will towards him because they are a fine band.

The album drops December 9, but you can pre-order at matadorrecords.com.

For the curious:

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MP3: Pavement – Stereo

For the committed:

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MP3: Pavement – No Tan Lines

For the obsessive:

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MP3: Pavement – Mark E. Smith (live)

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MP3: Pavement – What Goes On (Baltimore 5/14/1997)

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MP3: Pavement – Teenage Piss Party (live)

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2 Responses to “Reflections on Pavement”

  1. Spinkler says:

    Hey Steve,
    If you want to rip off an old song from first “The Young Pioneers” then “The Straw Dogs” i.e. “Teenage Piss Party” at least get the the words to the song right, and give credit were credit is due!!
    The Sprinkler!

  2. Terry O'Reilly says:

    So here’s your chance to set the record straight, Eric. What are the original lyrics to Teenage Piss Party?

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