High fidelity

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.

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.)

Kannberg laughs off these accusations. He does, however, point out that maturity and marriage do make life difficult for a member of a rock band. "We have other things going on that kind of take away from Pavement and are just as important as Pavement. You can only spend so much time away from your friends before they stop being your friends."

During his time off, Kannberg has kept busy maintaining Pavement's official Web site, pavementtherockband.com. (As it turns out, pavement.com is owned by the American Concrete Pavement Association.) He's also been spending time around Bay Area clubs and making acquaintances, which has led to the formation of a new record label, Amazing Grease. The label's first release is a single by Oranger -- a psychedelic-pop-rock trio featuring former members of San Francisco's coulda-shoulda-woulda-been-stars Overwhelming Colorfast -- which came out in early June.

Tired of "seeing bands spending all this money, not get any money, and probably getting dropped," Kannberg figured the do-it-yourself ethic might work, and besides, he'd taken a shine to Oranger. "They practice three times a week, and just seeing how good they are as a band practicing in a rehearsal space, it makes me think, 'Oh man, we were never a band like that.'"

Amazing Grease is currently a modest operation -- 1,000 copies of the Oranger 7-inch single were pressed, with runs of half that for upcoming singles by Sunless Day and Carlos -- though there's talk of expanding to include more bands. The label is coordinated by four people: Kannberg, Oranger members Mike Drake and Matt Harris, and Ben Lutch, a friend and fan who was happy to assist.

Harris explains that his band had run into Kannberg routinely over the past few years and had formed a friendship. "We always had in mind the idea of our own label," says Harris. "So when Scott said, 'I'm gonna start a label,' we thought if we could merge forces, it could be pretty strong."

The other Pavement rumor currently making the rounds is that Kannberg plans to work on a solo record -- besides Malkmus, he's the other main songwriter for the band, and Malkmus has been playing with the side project Silver Jews almost since he began playing with his "real" band. But Kannberg says he has no plans for a solo recording on Amazing Grease or elsewhere, though he does want to do something.

"Pavement's kind of limiting because we live so far away from each other and we don't see each other," he says. "We only see each other at certain times of the year, and those times of the year we're working: We're playing live or we're doing a record. It'd be nice to do something else. I'm getting a little antsy."

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Mark Athitakis