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The Asphalt Jingle

Photo by Marcus Roth
PAVEMENT WORKS HARDER THAN ANY rock band ever has at sounding casual, unrehearsed, even borderline inept. The group's music suggests a grad-student Animal House, a charming-boorish mess of cigarette butts, imported-beer cans, hazing paraphernalia and smart-ass footnotes to unwritten pop-cult dissertations. But underneath the lazy veneer, every note, every false start and stammer, has been rehearsed within an inch of its studied life. (And as singer Stephen Malkmus puts it, "What kind of life is that?") On the new Terror Twilight, you can rest assured that at the first sign of a good melody, a halfway decent beat or a well-turned phrase, it will be immediately undercut by a lurching chord change, a clunk-headed guitar break or some feckless vocal tic. For a group that has cultivated an aura of principled willfulness and eccentricity for nearly a decade, Pavement is nothing if not stunningly predictable.

Terror Twilight opens with "Spit on a Stranger," the perfect Pavement title, a tuneful Jerk Cola jingle ("I'll try the things you'll never try"), summing up less an aesthetic than an overdose of caffeinated attitude: "Vicious"-era Lou Reed guest-starring on Seinfeld, "a perfect match." A delicate air of smugness wafts through the song like incense-scented air freshener, fueled by the singer's innate conviction of his superiority to any situation or emotion he might stumble upon. Malkmus is a genius, all right -- the aimless intricacy of his songcraft proclaims as much even as his never-give-a-fuck voice turns fancy words into paper airplanes -- but his is a gift for disengagement. He's a master of charismatic indifference, teasing his enraptured audience with little feints of depth, carefully planted hints of feeling, but always retreating behind that mask of detachment. And Pavement's small but adoring public probably wouldn't have it any other way. "Spit on a Stranger" is the epitome of indie rock as Subculture Lite, a make-believe Underground with a warmed-over Velveeta filling, smells like art but tastes like fiberglass insulation.

Recruiting hotshot producer Nigel Godrich to buff up the cobwebs of Terror Twilight with some quickie Radiohead/Beck synergy is another brilliantly obvious move, a mirthless inside joke à la the hollow laughter and space-cadet reverb that ends the heavily mannerist "Billie." (Here outdistancing Velvet Goldmine in the stark-raving-vacuity sweepstakes, Pavement boldly reclaims the airhead-intellectual crown from Todd Haynes on behalf of straight creeps everywhere. "This wonderland of spite," indeed.) Lo-fi meets High Concept, with the headphone-edifying result that the usual cornball noises and kitsch-art gibes are now bathed in a lush, inviting "Cream of Gold" glow. While a line like "I bleed in beige" is as unfortunate as "Irish folktales scare the shit out of me" is convincing, the most striking feature about Terror Twilight is how completely it collapses any distinction between good and bad, best and worst: the lame banjo that anchors "Folk Jam" in the ersatz, the gruesome yet undeniably catchy bombast of "Platform Blues" spewing forth repressed AM memories of the '70s. Same difference, six in one ear and half a dozen out the other -- if "Major Leagues" is better than anything they've ever done before, that's of no more consequence here than the floppy bounce of ". . . And Carrot Rope," which is just the kind of upbeat English-invasion ditty you might hear in a cartoon dentist's office while Bugs Bunny performs your root canal.

PAVEMENT'S ULTRAKNOWING MUSICAL allusive-ness has always catered to critics -- a symbiotic relationship that has kept hungry rockscribes churning out hyberbole at the rate Nike workers produce Air Jordans -- but the indiscriminate quality of that praise gets more off-the-wall with each new album. Rolling Stone's review of Terror Twilight looks to have been generated by a random-quote search engine: "For ten years," it begins, "Pavement's Stephen Malkmus has been rock & roll's greatest expressionist . . ." In short order, the review moves on to cite "emotional clarity" (not something expressionists are noted for), "folk-rock lucidity" (ditto) and Pavement's "bighearted" romanticism. (Never mind the bubblegum nihilism of "Spit on a Stranger," consider the smoldering passion of "Major Leagues": "Relationships hey, hey, hey.") Whatever you may think of Malkmus -- rock's greatest ironist, rock's biggest fraud or anywhere in the middle -- the guy is the antithesis of either an expressionist or a romantic.

The inevitable attempts to place Pavement in some BeatlesDylanVelvetsSonicYouth continuum deliberately miss the point of their music, which is a methodical travesty of such artistic demands and ambitions. Pavement rewrites rock history as an academic-punk knock-knock joke ("Stephen Who?" "Stephen Fill-in-a-blank-generation"), a revisionist text that manages to omit all the risk, abandon, terror and delight that made the music interesting in the first place. But the difference between a Lennon, a Lou Reed or a Kim Gordon and a Stephen Malkmus can be illustrated with a little story Greil Marcus recalls: "Kid walks into Skip James' dressing room, arrogantly picks up James' guitar, plays a Skip James lick, and then asks the bluesman if he will ever be able to play the way James does. 'Son,' he answers, 'Skip has been and gone from places you will never get to.'"


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