Monday, March 10, 2008

Relationships, Hey Hey Hey: A Fun Guide To Pavement's Last Two Albums

Before I talk about Pavement's lovely last two albums, I'd like to share with you a boring little anecdote about when I first listened to Pavement. "Anecdote" might be a bit of a misnomer, since it's not a very funny story at all, but I'm not here to discuss semantics.

I bought Slanted and Enchanted, Pavement's first album, shortly before my freshmen year of college. It was the deluxe re-release, with a plethora of unreleased bonus tracks and cool packaging and whathaveyou - and one thing that stuck out in my mind was the colorful little booklet insert in the CD packaging that listed all five of Pavement's albums with cute little descriptions for each. My memory is fuzzy, but I distinctly recall Wowee Zowee being called "Pavement's diverse album," Crooked Rain described as "their mainstream album", etc. Having a total boner for bands that totally changed their sound with almost every album they released, I was immediately spurred to buy everything Pavement ever recorded.

Being the romantic that I am, I set up a little plan in my head that I would buy a new Pavement album for each year I was in college. This, I figured, would work our perfectly - I already had Slanted, and they released four albums after that. I was (presumably) going to be in college for four years - wow, they just sync up perfectly, don't they? I'd end up buying Terror Twilight, their last album, right after I graduated. Not only that, but I'd be graduating in 2009 - exactly ten years after Twilight came out. How wonderfully convenient!!!

I played along with this silly little plan for a brief period - I didn't pick up Crooked Rain until almost a full year after I got Slanted - but I abandoned it pretty quickly, especially after my house caught on fire and I lost my entire CD collection. After that, I had no qualms about downloading albums excessively, and by the summer of '07 I had everything, including Twilight. So much for dramatics.

Not that it really matters, though; I loved Pavement so much, purposefully depriving myself of their music was not a smart decision, and fire or no fire I would have caved in to my cravings eventually. Silly silly me!

So that's my Pavement anecdote. It wasn't very funny or interesting. Now onto the albums.

I first listened to Pavement's Brighten the Corners and Terror Twilight around the same time, so the two kind of run together for me; if I listen to one, I'll probably end up listening to the other shortly afterward. This might be because the two albums sound somewhat similar, at least upon first listen. They're both laid-back, graceful guitar-driven albums, and when listening to both of them back-to-back they almost sound like volumes one and two of Pavement's Last Hurrah. The sound itself is indicative of the phase Pavement was going through at the time; after the purposefully-weird Wowee Zowee alienated fans and critics, the band seemed to have little or no interest in commercial viability anymore. With Brighten and Terror, they decided to stick with their classic-rock-influenced sound mixed with the quiet beauty of past songs such as "Grounded" and "Pueblo", creating music that synthesized everything Pavement had been striving for since their second album, Crooked Rain Crooked Rain. As a result, though, the band mostly ignored their messy, lo-fi rockers that defined their early sound, giving their last couple albums a distinctly mellow feel - a move that deters a lot of hardcore Pavement fans to this day.

When you really dig deep, though, you start to realize how different - and wonderful - Pavement's last two records are. Brighten the Corners didn't offer anything remarkably new from Pavement, but it solidified what could be called the "Pavement sound", featuring a set of slow-burning, melodic guitar songs that pick up where "Grounded" left off. Songs like "Transport Is Arranged," "Old To Begin," "Type Slowly," "Starlings of the Slipstream" and "Fin" are all great songs, although maybe slower and more melodic than most Pavement fans would expect. These songs are par-the-course for the album, giving it a very consistent mood, but some great rockers prevent the songs from blending together too much - "Stereo", the opening track, has one of the most rockin' choruses the band's ever done, and its silly-awkward verses with cutesy lyrics about Geddy Lee just make it all the more charming. One of my favorites on the album is the Spiral Stairs song "Date w/ Ikea"; while Stairs had become the George Harrison of the band at this point, contributing only a couple songs on each album, his songs were often highlights, and "Ikea" is no exception. It's a poppy, fun, energetic number with a great 12-string guitar riff and a distorted vocal from Stairs that will no doubt remind the listener that this is indeed a Pavement song. There are some moments where the album's balance of relaxation and cutesiness turns to boredom and awkwardness; "Blue Hawaiian" is nice but is maybe a little TOO mellow for my tastes, and "We Are Underused" gets a little obnoxious after a while. But Brighten the Corners, for the most part, shows Pavement thriving in an attractive musical niche.

Terror Twilight, however, twists this niche until it is snapped in half. Where Brighten sounded relaxed and comfortable, Twilight sounds cold and even unfriendly at times, revealing a sad undercurrent to Pavement's music. Produced by Nigel Godrich, the man behind Radiohead and Beck's biggest albums, the songs have a notable gloss to them that distances the album even further from the traditional Pavement style; even the happier, more melodic songs tend to sound more distant than before. One easily get the impression that Pavement were on the verge of splintering apart - for one, the album was entirely written by lead singer/songwriter Stephen Malkmus, with minimal input from the rest of the band. That, and Malkmus himself doesn't sound remarkably excited with the whole project, his usually front-mixed sarcastic-asshole voice floating over these songs with an air of self-important disinterest.

With all these factors working against it, it might be hard to notice that Twilight has some really, really good songs brimming underneath all that pathos. For one, they're more diverse than Brighten's songs ever were, switching from alt-folk to jazzy pop to abstract rockers without hesitation. It's all buried under a more conservative style that's atypical for Pavement, but it's there. Also, while Malkmus's aforementioned voice isn't as energetic as it once was, it is rather pretty, and complements the grace of these songs well. And while the overall album does have an air of disinterest, it makes it all the more awesome when a bit of rock 'n roll fervor crashes in right in the middle of a song, something that happens often on Twilight. Finding these moments is a fun little game, one that warrants repeated listens: there's the explosive coda to "You Are A Light," the random art-guitar explosions in "Platform Blues," the uppity chorus to "Billie," the sudden rock breakdown near the end of the jazzy "Speak See Remember" - the list goes on and on. My personal favorite instance is in "The Hexx," a song that could easily rank as the most downtrodden song Pavement ever recorded - save for the chorus, during which Malkmus's voice rises high and an electric guitar rises with it. It's an exhilarating moment in an album that almost refuses to be exhilarating, at least on the surface. Indeed, this is an album that rewards patient listeners.

Beyond all that, though, there are simply a lot of great songs here that you would never see on any other Pavement album. "Folk Jam" is a banjo-driven ditty that... well, it's a folk jam, or at least the closest Pavement ever got to folk (it has the line "Irish folktales scare the shit out of me," so there you go). "Platform Blues" is a nutty, nutty song with harmonica(!) from Johnny Greenwood of Radiohead(!!) - I once heard someone call this song "unlistenable," which is kinda naive if you ask me. It's a fun, rockin' song, if not a weirdly timed, half-shouted rockin' song. But to me, the most notable tracks here are the three singles, all of which might be the oddest songs on the album. Opening track "Spit On A Stranger" is a sweet, pretty pop song - a straight-up pretty pop song, albeit with the title of "Spit On A Stranger." But it might be one of the loveliest songs Pavement's ever written - that is, if they didn't out-sweet it with "Major Leagues", the most straight-up and heartfelt love song they've ever written. Hell, it sounds almost radio-friendly. Yikes. But it's great, and of course it isn't totally straight-faced, with lyrics like "Lip balm on watery clay / Relationships, hey hey hey / You kiss like a rock, but you know I need it anyway." It's kind of a cynical realist's view of love, and it fits the band like a glove (rhyme).

Maybe the most anomalous song here, though, is "Carrot Rope" - a fun, cutesy song that closes the album, and ultimately Pavement's recording career. Not only does it comes after the darkness of "The Hexx," which seemed almost impossible to overcome, but it features almost every other band member singing! Well, I mean, they kinda throw their voices in there at the beginning awkwardly, but it's still quite endearing to hear them all sing non-sequitirs over each other with unexpected enthusiasm. It's a little jarring, but it's really sweet, a surprisingly lovely way for Pavement to bow out - especially coming from a band that defined themselves with slackerish sarcasm.

These albums aren't anywhere near as cherished as Pavement's early stuff, but they should be. To me, I've always imagined Pavement as a bunch of stoned slackers who, on a whim, stole money from their parents' wallets, bought some electric guitars, quarantined themselves in a basement all night and, by some kind of divine intervention, created beautiful beautiful music. These last couple albums are a testament to Pavement's craft - and proof that, in my eyes, they never recorded a disappointing album. If you love the band as much as I do, don't deprive yourself of them.

Like, don't wait a year to buy each one for no apparent reason. Just a random example.

No comments: