High fidelity

Pavement isn't breaking up. It's just learning how to grow old together.

Terror Twilight, Pavement's fifth full-length album, is a hard record to get a fix on. Scott Kannberg, Pavement's guitarist, is having problems explaining it himself. Over breakfast in a restaurant near his home in Berkeley, he's doing his best. "Parts of it are pretty light," he says, "but at least I think it's our darkest record yet. It's kind of slow. It's kind of an evening record, a record you put on in the evening when you're driving home from" -- he pauses and searches for a word -- "work."

Work? This, from a member of a band that pretty much single-handedly got us into this Gen-X-slacker mess in the first place?

Pavement formed in Stockton, California, in the late '80s, when Kannberg and his friend Stephen Malkmus -- then working under the pseudonyms of Spiral Stairs and S.M. -- joined forces with drummer Gary Young to screw around with a four-track recorder. Willfully noisy, irreverent, and cryptic, they flung out singles and EPs for the hell of it until professional smart folks like the BBC's John Peel and the editorial staff of Spin started taking notice.

Turn those frowns upside down, fellas: Pavement is, from left, Steve West, Stephen Malkmus, Scott Kannberg, Bob Nastanovich, and Mark Ibold.
k. westenberg
Turn those frowns upside down, fellas: Pavement is, from left, Steve West, Stephen Malkmus, Scott Kannberg, Bob Nastanovich, and Mark Ibold.

The band's early songs were ragged and sounded like they had been recorded in a subway tunnel, but they had a homespun, unstudied energy to them; by the time Pavement's first album, the lo-fi masterpiece Slanted and Enchanted, was released in 1992, the group had spawned a cult following that kept busy parsing the meaning of Malkmus' inscrutable lyrics ("Two states! We want two states!"; "Can you call it an oil well / When it's underground, out of sight?"; "She waits there in the levee wash / Mixing cocktails with a plastic-tipped cigar") and was certain the band was the next important (if not big) thing in rock.

For a while, the cultists were right. But sometime in the mid-'90s, as Guided by Voices released its 500th throwaway single and Sebadoh offered its umpteenth lo-fi acoustic meditation on tragic, tragic love, screwing around with a four-track began sounding less like an indie-supremacist manifesto and more like art-school shtick. Besides, by that point Pavement had moved elsewhere. Gary Young -- who'd gained a reputation for onstage antics that didn't speak well of his actual drumming ability -- was fired from the group in 1993, and new members had stepped in: drummer Steve West, bassist Mark Ibold, and percussionist Bob Nastanovich.

On 1994's sparkling Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, the band tinkered with folk rock, and on 1995's Wowee Zowee -- a quizzical record that Kannberg now all but disowns as a rush job -- it tinkered some more, with everything from punk to piano ditties to glam rock. Brighten the Corners, Pavement's 1997 follow-up, was its pop masterstroke, the sound of a group driving home the final nail in the lo-fi coffin.

As is Terror Twilight, but where Corners was hook-heavy and relatively straightforward lyrically, Twilight is studied and muted throughout. Excepting the loose, banjo-driven "Folk Jam" and "...And Carrot Rope," the upbeat pop song (and first single) that closes the record, many of the tracks (all written by Malkmus) are slow, introspective, and often just plain dull. Part of the problem is a lack of good hooks, but British producer Nigel Godrich -- who worked on Radiohead's OK Computer and Beck's Mutations -- has placed a polite sonic veneer over the songs. Rather than showing off the grandiose guitar flourishes that made Corners such a thrill, Twilight keeps busy obsessing over tiny sonic subtleties; "Cream of Gold" and "The Hexx" might be stronger rock songs than they let on over stereo speakers. "It was pretty intense trying to get these songs down," says Kannberg. "We probably ran through every song a hundred times, it seems like."

"It's pretty classic rock," says Kannberg of the album. "But it doesn't really jump out at you as much as it probably should. The songs are great, but there's a layer of this British rock over it." Kannberg notes that the record -- the band's first using an outside producer -- took more time than usual, mainly because the band had to remind itself that it was, well, a band. After all, the members of the group now reside in various parts of the country: Malkmus in Portland; Ibold in New York City; Nastanovich in Louisville, Kentucky; and West in Lexington, Virginia. Both West and Kannberg recently married.

"We pretty much took a year off to a year and a half off [after touring on Brighten the Corners], and we'd never done that before," says Kannberg. "And I think people were like, 'Oh shit, what do we do?' People kind of went off and did their own things and didn't really concentrate on Pavement. When everybody got together [to work on the new record], everybody was kind of in that other place still."

Statements like that have helped fuel recent rumors that Pavement is breaking up. Last year, Malkmus intimated to an audience at a solo show in Los Angeles that certain members might be more interested in starting families than staying in the band; Matador Records, Pavement's label, has heard any amount of scandal-mongering, including accusations of rampant drug abuse. ("Sorry, but junkies don't own golden retrievers," a Matador spokesperson says.)

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