Vic, May 23

I’ve never understood the hype about Pavement. Sure, they could be counted on to put out a great careening scruffy tune occasionally, but the drooling deification of the band by fans and critics has always mystified me. Apart from a few terrific songs—in which the band seemingly stumbled upon a scratchy, irresistible melody and happened to catch it on tape between bong hits—most of their recorded output struck me as self-indulgent noise.

In certain indie-rock circles, the sentiment “Pavement? They’re OK” is nothing short of heresy. Since their first album, Slanted and Enchanted, came out three years ago, it’s been held up by many music writers and Pavementophiles as the most important and influential rock recording of the 90s. But just about the only thing I find compelling on that record is the swinging pop gem “Summer Babe.” And the engaging guitar rave up “Box Elder” aside, my take on Westing (By Musket and Sextant)—a collection of early singles released by Drag City in 1993—is that it proves some people shouldn’t be given unlimited access to recording tape. The nearly endless progression of fuzzy, droning low-fi tracks on both Westing and Slanted induced me to think, “Get over yourselves.”

Maybe it’s a guy thing. Every male critic under 35 seems to have weighed in with a Grand Theory of Why Pavement Is God at some time or other. Pavement’s songwriter, Stephen Malkmus, is the ultimate Zen X hero: by not trying too hard and having reluctantly acquired that underground mystique, he’s attained a level of coolness that Details subscribers can only dream about.

And of course all those grand theorizers couldn’t wait to get their hands on Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, the 1994 follow-up to Slanted and Enchanted. Since Pavement’s celebrated indie rep had finally gotten them into the Rolling Stone club of important bands, the serious treatises came thick and fast with the release of that record. Pavement’s low-slung, jazz-influenced rambling rock was the most influential thing since Chuck Berry picked up a guitar or the Ramones plugged in their amps, readers were told. Again I shook my head in wonder. Yes, “Cut Your Hair,” with its oo-oo-oo sing-along chorus and loping hook, was a great single, and a few other tracks, like “Elevate Me Later” and “Silence Kit,” demonstrated Malkmus’s undeniable melancholy melodicism. But my reaction to that album was, well, “Pavement? They’re OK.”

Ironically, now that the tide of attention has moved on to other bands, Pavement has finally released an album that lives up to all the superlatives. Even Wowee Zowee‘s snotty, punky garage songs—usually the band’s least interesting moments—have their merits. “Serpentine Pad”—in which Malkmus sneers, “I don’t need your corporation attitude!”—seems more a send-up of Pavement’s indie-rock past than a slam on anyone else. But most of the songs on the new record tend toward the contemplative, even the plaintive, not qualities that have been often associated with Pavement. Throughout the album’s 18 songs, Malkmus limns a portrait of suburban alienation that’s a latter-day version of John Cheever’s gin-soaked country-club blues. “They spoke of latent causes, sterile gauzes, and the bedside morale,” he drawls on “Grounded,” a lilting ode to the listless upper-middle class from which he, and many in his audience, sprang. “We Dance,” the opening track, sets the song cycle’s mood of desultory angst. Malkmus sings tentatively over the soft, interwoven threads of piano and acoustic guitar: “Maybe we can dance together.” Or maybe not, he seems to imply.

Malkmus’s songs examine the faltering cockiness of a twentysomething who’s nearing the end of his 20s, who catches his dad crying, and, as he sings on “Grounded,” whose “thoughts they start turning, toward the lessons that [he’s] learning.” Snideness and disengagement, once Pavement’s stock mannerisms, have given way to a less ironic, more honest and (dare I say) vulnerable state of mind.

But even if the band has moved on, certain hard-core fans at Pavement’s recent Vic show haven’t (they kept shouting for early scratchy classics like “Debris Slide”). Perhaps in an effort to drag their fans into the present, or perhaps because they’re just tired of their old material, Pavement stuck mostly to their latest albums at the Vic. Opening with their best-known song, the poppy “Cut Your Hair,” they bounded into their recent material with conviction and energy, perhaps disappointing those who had come expecting the typical Pavement show—a smattering of false starts, a healthy dose of rambling jazzy interludes, and a drummer whose consciousness and lucidity remain ever in doubt. This show featured almost none of those antics. Malkmus, as usual, was reticent between songs, but his conviction came through in his quietly smoldering guitar work and his lively delivery of lyrics. “Maybe somebody’s gonna save me / My heart is made of gravy,” he growled nasally on “AT & T” before breaking into the chorus’s yelp of “whatever, whatever, whatever, whatever!” He finished up the song with a few big hearty bellows. And his shimmering guitar solos, especially on the syncopated “Rattled by the Rush,” were a model of unshowy, passionate embroidery.

While the band’s rockier numbers were sometimes self-indulgent, and their few excursions into pseudojazz were lackluster, the gentle interplay of Malkmus’s and Spiral Stairs’s guitars invested the songs from Wowee Zowee with a muscular sort of grace. Spiral Stairs, known to his mother as Scott Kannberg, invested the lilting “Grounded” with a slippery, poignant tenderness, and his slightly uncertain, regular-guy vocals on “Kennel District” turned the song’s chorus (“Why didn’t I ask?”) into a bittersweet serenade. Of course the sound system at the Vic didn’t cooperate with the band’s efforts—everything came out a bit muddled by too much bass—but the double guitar epic “Grave Architecture” did manage to achieve a soaring poignance.

By the time the band played “Gold Soundz,” Crooked Rain‘s anthem to emptiness, the lyrics “You’re the kind of girl I like, ’cause you’re empty, and I’m empty” rang a bit hollow. Pavement performed their music with spirit and an appealing near-sincerity, perhaps disappointing those who want Malkmus and company to remain icons of smart-alecky, in-jokey indie rock. Judging by their new material and their engaging performance, it seems that Pavement have outgrown some of the acidic aesthetic that defined them in the past and embraced the contradictions and confusions of adulthood with a certain awkward grace.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/David Kamba.