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Alternate Histories: Pavement: Brighten the Corners

The copious pictures found in the booklets for the deluxe editions of Pavement's first-fourth albums remind me of one meaning of the word, slack, in those days: truly not caring about what clothes you wear. As a man who has rarely given more than five minutes' thought or preparation to what I wear on any given day, I support but am nonetheless taken aback by the hideousness of some of the vintage Pavement fashions on display. They were the band's own kind of Punk gesture, I suppose. The veterans of Punk-Indie music, and the host of “subcultures” and “countercultures” that surrounded it, often cared a great deal about what they wore—and their tattoos, piercings, make-up—not merely to look good, to feel comfortable, to do what “your own thing” and “what I want,” which is all well and good. But also to signify: cultural meanings, social positions, on the “edge” or in the “liminal space” of something or other. Many of them still do, amazingly, in 2021, when any statement, posture, product (anything at all!) “comes out in the [white]wash” of the endless feed of audio-video drivel keeping us addicted to infotainment.

Is this another way of saying that some aspects of an artist's work get left behind, as relics to be studied at odd moments? Listen to the music. Then, later, when you can spare moments of braindead sublimity, ponder how such extraordinary Rock (yes, really, and clearly after all these years, deserving of the obsessive attention it received at the time) was made by guys who looked like stunt doubles from the atrocious sitcom Friends.

What else remains as a relic? Sadly, two tracks on Brighten the Corners, the two composed by Scott “Spiral Stairs” Kannenberg, ‘Date With Ikea’ and ‘Passat Dream’. They simply do not fit. This is an an album, created a singular artistic unit, not a variety show for heaven's sake. They don't even sound like they were recorded at the same place. Pavement fans have ignored this sad reality too long, especially since ‘Passat Dream’ is a great recording and song in its own right. Perhaps the two tracks could have comprised a 45, the debut release of Kannenberg's later project, Preston School of Industry. At one of those online-only publications (apparently no one want to say, “e-zine," anymore) that are utterly interchangeable (Tiny Mix Tapes, Stereogum, Pitchfork, No Ripchord) a recent investigative article disclosed the curious path by which an out-take from the Corners sessions, ‘Harness Your Hopes’, became the band's surprising hit song on some obscure online music-streaming service. 'Hopes' had been a fan favorite since its release. Another shorty ditty, ‘Roll With the Wind’ (like ‘Hopes’ a Corners out-take not released until two years later as a "B-side" track on the C D version of the ‘Spit on a Stranger’ single from Terror Twilight), could have easily joined ‘Hopes' as the other missing piece replacing Kannenberg's tunes.

Lest you think I'm exaggerating this problem with Corners, or picking on Kannenberg... Not at all. ‘Hit the Plane Down’, Kannenberg's one song on Crooked Rain, fits (barely) into that album because another outlier, the Jazz-like instrumental, ‘5-4=Unity’, makes the former not stand out so baldly. Together, they play a big role in setting the pace of that album's B side, which is circuitous and even disorienting compared to the tightly-wound A side. Kannenberg's two songs on Wowee Zowee, meanwhile, blend in nicely with that album's eclectic and extensive selection of tunes.

By the way, Terror Twilight has been persistently dismissed since its release—since before its release. A few factors made this happen: a preview single, ‘Carrot Rope’, that does not sound much like the rest of the album; a producer, Nigel Godrich, with a penchant for adroit electronic manipulation of recorded sound (not exactly Pavement fans' favorite thing); and the growing number of Stephen Malkmus songs tending toward slower tempos and darker themes, already apparent on Corners. I admit I did not listen to the album when it came out. I had moved elsewhere in my listening. Four years later, driving to and from the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library in Iowa, it became a favorite. I cannot explain why. Something to do with the snow on the fields? Well, I can attempt to explain. I was a history graduate student, realizing that I had no clear reason for being so. There was a lot of Rock-and-Roll in those years clarion-calling me “home” (is there a requiste number of scare quotes to use here? “scare quotes”?) because one thing we learned in those days, since we were proposed them to be “post-modern” (the Nineties! nevermind, it was the Eighties) is that the lack of grand narratives turns into a grand narrative itself. One could argue that Stephen Malkmus, as a artist-public persona, learned that too. As such, his music made with the Jicks from 2001 onward may offer more pleasure or solace for him than his efforts with Pavement did. I'd rather he have another great guitarist to play with. Also, the song lyrics on his solo albums too often tend to alternate between the gauche and the silly, at least beyond the post-Pavement afterglow of his eponymous debut. "Do your own thing" indeed.

–Justin J Kaw, January 2021