January 10, 2009

Pavement: Brighten The Corners (Nicene Creedence ed.)

Pavement: Brighten the Corners (Nicene Creedence ed.) (Matador Ole 805)

I was late coming around to Pavement. In 1994, a co-worker, knowing of my long-time enthusiasm for Sonic Youth, lent me Pavement’s first two albums, Slanted and Enchanted (Matador Ole 038, 1992) and Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain (Matador Ole 079, 1994). I listened to them and enjoyed them well enough, but interpreted the lackadaisical, sunshiny vibe as a measure of their un-seriousness and dismissed them out of hand. Maybe if my friend had lent me Westing By Musket and Sextant (Drag City DC14, 1993), a collection of their early, primitive, noise-drenched singles and EPs, I would have been more receptive. You see, amongst some of my cohorts of the time, non-R&B-based pop music was immediately suspect and only the most outrĂ© (that is to say the most unpopular) pop music was deemed acceptable – and then only in small, irony-drenched dosages. Of course, this kind of snobbery is utterly stupid and I regret to say that I succumbed to a kind of aesthetic self-policing that only served to deprive me of a wider range of artistic pleasure. Not surprisingly (and not long after getting married), I eventually drifted away from these particular cohorts and was relieved to find myself free to pursue what I liked (as opposed to merely what I was supposed to like).

So Pavement’s 1995 album, Wowee Zowee (Matador Ole 130) had been garnering a fair amount of press that either declared it an unequivocal masterpiece or a disjointed, failed experiment - or both. Intrigued, I picked up the double-LP and was immediately seduced by the diverse, if crudely fashioned, instrumental textures and Stephen Malkmus’s lilting, cryptic singing. Now, for the most part, I disregard rock lyrics; it is the sound of the music that matters to me, not necessarily what is being sung. There are the obvious exceptions, of course (Bob Dylan, et al.), but Malkmus does something unique. At first blush, his lyrics appear to be words randomly strung together in merely clever euphony, but over time the nonsense strains to cohere into meaning and convey inchoate yet very real emotion. Rather than actual nonsense, Malkmus’s lyrics are, upon closer scrutiny, perhaps the most literary in rock history.

Hooked, I ran out and picked up the rest of Pavement’s catalog.

Now that I was full-blown fan of the band, I bought Brighten the Corners the day it was released, February 11, 1997 and it was to become an indelible part of the soundtrack of that momentous year. The decision had been made to leave Boston and relocate to Nashville – jobs or no jobs. The once gracious, but now decrepit apartment building we were living in was being rapidly gutted so as to be turned into expensive condos and we were soon to be the last tenants remaining. Day by day the building’s interior was stripped of fixtures and plaster. It was spooky and kind of sad; we felt like squatters in our own home even though we were still paying hefty monthly rent. Mixed emotions were running rampant with long goodbyes to friends, endless anxiety over crucial unknowns, but also a giddy excitement for the impending new adventure. Brighten the Corners was one of those records that felt deeply reassuring amidst all the wrenching, (admittedly self-inflicted) unease. “Everybody wants a shady lane”, Malkmus sang in a voice aching with hopeless yearning. Yes, that was what we wanted and we knew we would have to leave the northeast in order to achieve that goal.

It helped that Brighten the Corners contains some of the prettiest songs in the Pavement canon. Besides the aforementioned “Shady Lane,” “Type Slowly,” and “Blue Hawaiian” are simply gorgeous. By this time, the Pavement guys had actually learned to play their instruments and could construct intricate songs full of dynamic contrasts, subtle arrangements, all capped with catchy riffs and melodies. They had also truly come together as an ensemble with Spiral Stairs (Scott Kannberg) coming to the fore with two signature songs: the poppy “Date w/IKEA” and the punky “Passat Dream.” The album flows with a relaxed but insistent continuity ending with the anthemic “Starlings of the Slipstream” and the epochal guitar heroics of “Fin.” Light-handed but effective production by Bryce Goggin and the legendary Mitch Easter lends a gleaming sheen to the music that is still sounds warm, spacious, and detailed. Brighten the Corners sounds really great on the original vinyl LP.

Like others in Matador’s series of deluxe 2-CD reissues of Pavement’s catalog, this one is packed with every associated B-side, stray tracks, radio sessions, plus a bunch of unreleased songs from the original sessions. Pavement were always generous with singles and EPs, and Brighten the Corners (Nicene Creedence ed.) contains some classic B-sides: “And Then (The Hexx)” was originally intended to be the album opener, but the multi-sectional, near-prog-rock dirge would have radically altered the tone of the album. Nevertheless, “And Then (The Hexx)” and “Roll With The Wind,” a hurtling rocker, would become staples of live sets. Convincing covers of “The Killing Moon” and “The Classical” demonstrate Pavement’s 80s-era affinity with both the shimmering Brit-pop of Echo and the Bunnymen and the caustic new wave attack of The Fall. A soaring rendition of “Type Slowly” recorded at the Tibetan Freedom Concert shows just how far Pavement had come as a live band. And for those who pre-ordered Brighten the Corners (Nicene Creedence ed.) from their local independent record store (in my case, the inimitable Grimey’s), you also got a free LP recorded live on the 1997 European tour that further demonstrates what a powerful, cohesive band Pavement had become. (For further evidence, see the Slow Century DVD (Matador 388-9, 2002).

In “The Pavement Tapes,” a contemporaneous New Yorker article reprinted in the liner notes, preeminent music critic Alex Ross wrote:

A Pavement album is a series of small labyrinths. The pleasure of the maze
matters more than finding a way out. After many repetitions, the strangeness of
the language remains; at the same time the lyrics mesh with the music in ways
that make nearly every word sound natural and exact. The band plays the same
trick over and over, so far without exhaustion: weird words decay into
infectious music.

That’s about right. But, unfortunately, exhaustion would eventually overwhelm the band. 1999’s Terror Twilight (Matador Ole 260) was a pleasant, if MOR-ish step backward and internal tensions would split the band for good after a grueling final tour. Brighten the Corners (Nicene Creedence ed.) represents Pavement at the height of their powers, making the most consistent and accomplished music of their career. Some may have lamented the lost shambolic innocence of their early work, but development and growth were inevitable given such talented and frankly ambitious individuals like Stephen Malkmus. Wrongly construed as “slackers,” Pavement was a hard-working band that earned its artistic successes. Listening to this is a reminder that the seemingly moribund world of pop music can still be capable of surprise and evolution. Essential.

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