A snare-cymbal clash fades in to join two guitars--one a simple bass line, the other a recognizable tone of warm distortion sparked by awkwardly picked chords. Over it, an unfamiliar voice breathes some familiarly elliptical lyrics: "Tortured statues someone once held up to the sky/The silver trees and weathervanes mark your valley high/I'm brighter now with straw-like hair/It's not your problem." The track--"Encyclopedic Knowledge of"--is ripe with offbeat observations, thwarted stories and wordplay so obdurate it'd be glib if it weren't so catchy. Quite simply, it sounds almost like Pavement.
When Stephen Malkmus released his solo album earlier this year he all but closed the book on Pavement's secret. Yes, it started out as a two-man collaboration, but by the time it entered underground radar Pavement was a full-fledged band. And while theoretically there were two principal songwriters, Pavement didn't bear the marks of a Paul and John or a Mick and Keith. If anything, it was a tug-of-war reminiscent of Sebadoh's Jason Loewenstein and Lou Barlow, each with his imprint that didn't exactly mesh with the other. Over the years, however, it sounded like one mind was behind Pavement's panache, the smirking Ess-dog himself, Malkmus.
But Pavement's best rudder was its overall weirdness. No other '90s band turned post-punk pastiche into pop oddity quite as engagingly. And while Malkmus has sulked off his Fall fascinations in favor of Richard Thompson inscrutability, his Pavement co-founder Scott Kannberg--Spiral Stairs to the loyalists--reveals his inner songwriting demon to be a beast bound by Pere Ubu and the Feelies. It's still nerdy and rocking, but with a touch more sophistication, which gives his solo debut as the Preston School of Industry, All This Sounds Gas, a joyous, upbeat groove that makes you happy the meandering, mellifluous Terror Twilight was Pavement's coda.
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If Gas recalls the skittish passion of the Demolition Plot J-7 7-inch EP and the Perfect Sound Forever 10-inch, it's because Kannberg recorded some of it at the same place: the studio of drummer Gary Young, the older gent responsible for all the fun during Pavement's otherwise ramshackle first tour. The rough edges of those early days are smoother, but the oomph that gave "Fork Lift" its bite remains. It rustles beneath the persuasive "The Idea of Fires," on which Kannberg's guitar sound feels lifted whole from Wowee Zowee. Elsewhere, Kannberg takes his instrumental brio into ground Pavement feared to tread with such subtle gusto. "Take a Stand/All This Sounds Gas" uses a staccato drum-piano-guitar dialogue as a melodic peg for background la-la-la-la vocals that remind of Lou Reed's Coney Island Baby, and that's a good thing. And "Monkey Heart and the Horses' Leg" uses strings to soak one of the most exasperated yet ebullient celebrations of disenfranchisement you may hear this year. Kannberg's voice is a bit tinny at times, but overall, Gas is just that. It's no Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, but these days, very few things are.