METRO, MAY 5
Pavement creates the sonic equivalent of guitars propping ladders up against each other and then climbing them frantically and recklessly. The only other band I’ve ever heard invoke this kind of aural vertigo with two guitars was Television, the late-70s New York art-punk quartet. But where Television’s Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd made guitar stunts by elaborately plotting their interplay, Pavement lets the chops fall where they may. They go on instinct. They’re not concerned with a smooth veneer; their surfaces are blistered and cracked intentionally and to great effect.
As with everything in Pavement County, the guitaring is catch-as-catch-can. Theirs is a music of process, not product. Which makes for occasional crap. The song “5 – 4 = Unity,” a rote sub-Brubeck 5/4 romp from their recent Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, is crap. Some of Westing (By Musket and Sextant), their 1993 compilation of early, sometimes unfocused material, is crap. Pavement’s ethos assumes some risk. But that’s OK. I’m a gambling man.
A couple of the 34 songs Pavement played at Metro last month were crap, in that they were unaffecting. They didn’t make me dizzy, they didn’t make me much of anything. Luckily, the crappy moments were short-lived. But in those moments of disengagement I was able to think of Pavement as a rock band loosely based in Stockton, California, getting a lot of play on WXRT and MTV. Being conscious of the facts ruins the fun. I sit through a lot of shows and listen to a lot of records fully conscious of facts.
Great music makes me oblivious to facts. I don’t care how they’re doing it or when or why. I’m up the ladder with them, ignorant. A band can induce this kind of sublimation with one of two tools–or in the best cases both–the electric guitar or singing. People I respect say you’ve got to have a great rhythm section to have a great band, but I don’t give a fuck about great bands. I’m interested in great music. There’s a difference. I can name lots of great rock songs by not-great bands. I’ve heard lots of great rock music with not-great drumming or bass playing. But I cannot, for the life of me, think of one great rock song that has neither great singing nor great guitar playing.
Pavement has borrowed, stolen, and reinvented the sound and purpose of the electric guitar. They access the full range of distortions, from AM-radio hiss to wall-of-sound denseness to trapped-animal squealing. They mix tunings both conventional and un-, revealing dissonances and harmonies that attract and distract the listener. They strum, they chime, they jangle, they chunk, they dirge, they pick, pop, explode, and erode. In short, Pavement’s Steve Malkmus and Scott Kannberg have mastered and also extended the standard vocabulary of the rock guitar. A keen feat.
And then there’s Malkmus’s voice. He doesn’t have a great voice in the classical sense, but rock has never been about technical facility. What he has is a weary, reedy timbre and a tenuous and indignant way with a phrase. The combination turns the ridiculous (“I’ve got style / Miles and miles / So much style that it’s wasted”) into the sublime. Mick Jagger once sang (immodestly), “It’s the singer, not the song,” pushing rock closer than it had ever been to a definition of itself. Malkmus’s singing is testimony to that definition’s inviolableness.
Recently critics have taken small, medium, and large issue with what they see as Pavement’s lyrical obscurantism and emotional detachment. What’s the big deal? Abstraction is no longer a difficult concept for most audiences. Media as varied in technique and purpose as film and dance, literature and advertising, sculpture and television have integrated various degrees of nonrepresentational communication. Why should Pavement’s pastiches cause the critics so much indigestion?
I think I know why. Most critics are more comfortable approaching a piece of popular music through the words than through the music itself. Words are easier to describe–you can print them, after all. You can talk about the “things that happen” in the song and about the way the singer/narrator “feels.” (This explains why mediocre, clever artists such as John Hiatt and Randy Newman receive such lavish critical attention.) But nothing really “happens” in a Pavement song, and Malkmus never explicitly says how he “feels.”
If, as some have been willing to presume, Pavement’s (and their generation’s) primary reaction to the world is resignation and boredom, why shouldn’t they make music about that? Try telling Camus and Sartre that ennui isn’t worth talking about. Albert and Jean-Paul might just knock your intellectual teeth out.
I had a college professor who would slam his fist on the top of his desk and then shout, “What is that?” The impromptu exam would inspire answers about vibrations and sound waves and their receipt in the eardrum etc and answers about the force of a hand at such and such a speed meeting the unmovable object of the desk top, blah blah blah. The only acceptable answer, according to Professor Ronci, was for a student to slam his or her hand on the desk too. The act was what it was, not some explanation of it. A Pavement song, like “Elevate Me Later” from Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, is a slam against the desk top. It’s self-referential, without being self-contained. It “means” by conjuring and suggesting and implying, by ricocheting off things. Where, or if, it hits you depends on where you stand. To try to understand the song with conventional, referential apparatus is invariably to misunderstand it. This leads to such insupportable interpretations as Bill Wyman’s “a veiled reference to Winona Ryder dating Dave Pirner, from Soul Asylum.”
Life is a series of little explosions. Language is a net for containing the shrapnel. Sometimes the shrapnel is too small and it slips through the net. Other times the explosions are too big and blow the net apart. What generally get caught in the net are the obvious things, the things that are easily and often already gotten.
I think it was Wittgenstein who said something like, “Everything that can be written can be thought.” The writings of Gertrude Stein, Raymond Roussel, and Pavement seek to disprove that assertion. At the disposal of such practitioners, words create their own contexts and generate their own interrelationships in an attempt to equal, rather than serve, the explosions that produce them. As such, language doesn’t serve prescripted intentions; it makes its own way and, if successful, knows where it’s going when it gets there. The “meaning” may not be easily describable or “thinkable,” but that doesn’t make it negligible.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marty Perez.