(Matador OLE 260-2)
With the release of their fifth, and most accomplished, album, Terror Twilight, suburban California’s pre-eminent slack-rockers, Pavement, have found themselves mired in a maelstrom of widespread critical adulation. In association with lavish praise from “The Village Voice”, who have declared Pavement the “finest rock band of the ’90s”, mainstream media-outlets, including Canada’s notoriously stodgy Globe & Mail, have rushed to celebrate the band as a bonafide touchstone of modern rock. The acclamation is well deserved and long overdue.
Like The Velvet Underground, REM, or Sonic Youth, Pavement have emerged as true pathfinders in the evolution of American independent music. Fortuitously, the band’s albums bookend the decade, giving rock critics pause to explore how Pavement’s discography might somehow define the sounds of contemporary suburban America. Since their 1991 debut release, Slanted & Enchanted, generally considered to be the perfect embodiment of the DIY spirit of American indie-rock, Pavement have operated just under the cultural radar. Fueled by the critical praise that accompanied S&E, the band would go on to release the adrenaline charged Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain in 1994 and the open-concept (and heavily Zappa influenced) Wowee Zowee in 1995. The new record, however, is the product of a two year recording hiatus which followed 1997’s Brighten the Corners and stands as Pavement’s most confident and professional recording to date. Despite its title, which seemingly references apocalyptic fears, Terror Twilight should bring solace to those who fear rock’s eventual surrender to the forces of hip-hop and electronica.
Reinforced by superior production from Nigel Godrich, (whose recent works have included Beck’s Mutations and Radiohead’s OK Computer), Terror Twilight represents the zenith of Pavement’s artistic talents. Unlike past recordings, which at times have seemed disjointed and amateurish, the new album is a carefully crafted epic in which the mood and pace are set and re-aligned by the strategic use of heavy reverb and blasts of white-noise. Furthermore, for an emerging audiophile such as myself, the deep and spacious sound of this record is a definite treat for the ears. And, under Godrich’s careful supervision, the band is given ample opportunity to fully recognize their creative capacity.
Terror Twilight begins with the beautifully lilting melodies of “Spit on a Stranger” before proceeding to embrace California’s folk-rock heritage on tracks like “Speak, See, Remember” and the decidedly Dead-ish (and appropriately titled) “Folk Jam”. These tracks, along with “Major Leagues”, “Anne Don’t Cry” and the brilliantly lackadaisical “You are a Light” saunter through sentimental melodies like a balmy breeze on a summer Sunday afternoon. Which is not to say that Pavement have abandoned their penchant for straight-ahead rock. On “Cream of Gold” and the deeply sinister “The Hexx”, the band proudly kick out the jams while Godrich offsets classic guitar flourishes with dissonant moments of new psychedelia. At risk of taking themselves too seriously, however, Pavement ends the record with the playful, and latently sexual, “Carrot Rope”.
The true artistic strength behind this record comes from lead vocalist and chief guitarist, Stephen Malkmus. Hailing from a profoundly middle-class California suburb, Malkmus has been described as a “Whit Stillman preppie” whose success has been built around a profound connection with the youthful malaise of the relatively privileged. Indeed, how many bands, other than Pavement, would think to write songs about preppy-lifestyle accessories like Ikea furniture or Volkswagen Passats? Malkmus, as a decidedly 90’s rock personality, is best known for his deadpan delivery, clever turns of phrase and proclivity for lyrical double-meanings and heavy irony. And, while Kurt Cobain, the man who pop-cultural historians will likely remember as the poetic voice of the 1990s, may have effectively tapped the 20-something angst of the over-educated and underemployed with his anthem “here we are now, entertain us”, ultimately, his drug addiction and eventual suicide represented a level of despair outside the range of experience for the average young preppy. Malkmus, whose vocals range from plaintive to tired to hysterical, explores a realm somewhere between profound boredom and inarticulate rage and connects with his audience in ways that Cobain’s melodrama never could.
Terror Twilight showcases Malkmus and the band at their best and, in many ways, defines what has come to be identified as Pavement’s characteristic, so-called slacker, approach: relaxed, wandering guitar lines perfectly complimented by languid lyrical delivery. Rest assured, even the chronically indifferent Mr. Cobain would have found this album to be “entertaining”.