A stretch of Pavement

Pavement are in Japan at the moment. I will not attend any of their shows, though I did the last several times there were in these parts and have dug out a concert review I wrote for the Japan Times in August 1999. It’s on the website, but behind a paywall. Enjoy.

The opening act at Akasaka Blitz on Aug. 24 was an earnest Danish group called Thau, who offer a thumping and searing sound reminiscent of the Meat Puppets. The audience awarded their 20-minute set with a warm and noisy ovation, prompting effusive gratitude from the band’s drummer, who mentioned what an honor it was “to play in front of the mighty Pavement.”

Pavement is a fine band, but “mighty”? It sounds like something a 70s promoter would yell while introducing Emerson Lake & Palmer. I can imagine the members of Pavement, if in fact they were listening at all, tittering derisively at the compliment.

Having convinced major labels not to call any more, Pavement are now comfortably ensconced in a snug indie cocoon that they inhabit all by themselves. At one time hailed as the next big thing, the group has turned into something less dramatic but much more interesting: an eternal underground band whose influence has been immediate and pervasive–especially, at the moment, in England.

There have been other such bands, and like Pavement, not all of them traded up to the “Major Leagues.” (No band, underground or major, obsesses as much about the biz in their songs as Pavement does.) But no other ostensible indie group has ever sustained such an impeccable oeuvre over time. To paraphrase Randy Newman, each Pavement album is just like their last album, only better.

“Mighty” isn’t the adjective I’d use to describe the band’s appearance, either. Dressed for either the playground or the science fair, the five members didn’t resemble a tight ensemble, which is understandable since their songs’ appeal lies in the juxtaposition of jerry-rigged structures and intense musical acuity. Each musician goes about his task with considerable focus, though they don’t always appear to be paying attention to what anybody else is doing. The fact that they always get where they’re going makes each song sound like a small miracle of intuition.

Stephen Malkmus, who is understood to be the main songwriter (there are no songwriting credits on the albums), is a much better singer in person. This, of course, can be attributed to the famous shower effect wherein anyone who sings loud in an echoey environment sounds like Caruso. In the beginning at least, Pavement were dedicated lo-fi purists, and Malkmus’s flat, thin delivery was untweaked. His attempts at holding notes he couldn’t find and then screaming like a headbanger when the songs hit overdrive left a lot of people thinking he was a wiseass, even though for the most part he was sincere. Nobody believes you can sound that dorky unless it’s on purpose.

Positioned stage left, Malkmus, who stands out because he’s tall and lanky as opposed to the other guys who are soft and pudgy, put lots of body English behind his guitar playing and singing, pulling his long, thin frame up onto the tips of his toes as he reached for those high notes with his frail voice. The emotional high points were those junctures where Malkmus’s offhanded delivery suddenly ratchets up into a rant. I’d always thought, as much as I enjoyed those moments, that they were also the most calculated. But one look at Malkmus possessed by a squawk and you could tell that the boy can’t help it. During “Cream of Gold,” a rangy mid-tempo song with a lot of keyboard echo, he repeated the chorus (“I bleed in beige/why’d you leave me so far”) and at the same time shook his guitar to produce a tremolo effect that worked itself up his arm, into his head, and then out of his mouth.

Then there’s keyboard-percussionist Bob Nastanovich, who shakes a tambourine like one of those little windup dolls you see perched at the entrances of cheesy toy stores, only much faster. Nastanovich’s purposes on record are never clear (they use little keyboard, and I only hear one drum set), but he’s the most motile person on stage and projects a rocker sensibility that his everyguy wardrobe and features wouldn’t normally warrant.

In “Stereo,” one of Malkmus’s three-minute patchwork pop masterpieces, Nastanovich inserts lines into the meandering lyrics that Malkmus delivers in a musing tone of voice. The singer wonders, “What about the voice of Geddy Lee/How did it get so high/I wonder if he speaks like an ordinary guy,” and then Nastanovich, without missing a beat, offers, “I know him, and he does.” “Thanks,” Malkmus replies, without changing tone, “you’re my fact-checking cuz.” Though I’ve laughed at the line while listening to it “on the stereo,” I practically bust a gut watching these two pull it off live.

Very entertaining but not “mightily” so, and not particularly danceable, since the band tends to switch randomly from one melodic or rhythmic mode to another, and try as the appreciative audience would, they never got a mosh pit going. Structurally, Pavement’s songs (or, at least, the ones sung by Malkmus; those sung by the other guitarist, Scott Kannberg, are more conventionally “alternative,” i.e., lots of slightly discordant strumming within a traditional verse-chorus configuration) rarely build or create tension since they fall apart several times before they fall apart for good at the end.

But they are songs, ones that you hum to yourself as you wash the dishes or walk to 7-11 for a liter of milk. Over the course of an hour and fifteen minutes, they played twenty of them, and except for the nursery rhyme-tempoed “Billie” and the countryish “Folk Jam,” at the end of which Malkmus tore off a beautiful crescendoing single-note solo, nothing clocked in at over four minutes. If you figure that the average Pavement song contains at least one distinct melody for every minute of music, that works out to something like 80 different melodies during the evening. Many pros will think, “What a waste,” while the rest of us just sit in our seats shaking our heads, wondering, “Where did that come from?”

As a bonus, here’s a link to an interview I did with Bob Nastanovich in 2010.

photo (c) Tarina Westlund

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