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By William Michael Smith
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By Craig Hlavaty
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Pavement's latest, Brighten the Corners, is being widely touted as a return to the cohesive and accessible sound of the band's 1994 Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain. That CD, which scored a modest hit with the song "Cut My Hair," pushed the group, among the most respected on the independent rock scene, toward mainstream success. Then 1995's Wowee Zowee produced the first substantial Pavement backlash; some even saw the CD, with an uneven sound that veered from punk rock to whatever, as an intentional attempt to slow the band's commercial momentum, and thus preserve their indie credibility.
Though Pavement percussionist/keyboard player Bob Nastanovich sees merit in much of the criticism Wowee Zowee received, he raises an eyebrow at the notion that his band was trying to sidetrack success with the CD. People who accept conspiracy theories of that sort, he suggests, have bought way, way too much into the whole indie mystique.
"That kind of thinking is a misconception about Pavement," Nastanovich says. "We don't really try to intentionally be unpopular or separate ourselves from certain things in the music industry. I mean, there are some things that instantly sound unappealing that we just don't want to do, but we never purposely made records with the intention of alienating people. We just make the records we like to make and hope that people will enjoy them."
"That was a hard record for people to grasp," Nastanovich adds about Wowee Zowee. "It was a pretty confusing record, and maybe its songs could have been put in a better order. And basically it kind of yanked the listener in all directions. So yeah, I think there was a backlash there ... we actually found around 80 percent of the criticisms to be fair enough and just kind of moved on. We thought, 'Well, I guess they're right.' Some of the things we knew when we made the record, but we really wanted to put it out because we loved those 20 songs or whatever it is. Yeah, so [the response] didn't hurt our feelings."
And while Nastanovich accepts the observation that Brighten the Corners is more accessible, he has a hard time considering it a throwback to the more pop-oriented feel of Crooked Rain.
"I guess people, they basically think it's sort of a return to the style that we had, and the type of record that Crooked Rain was," he says. "But I think that record wasn't on our mind at all when we were making this one. I think that what happened with this record is that [songwriter] Stephen [Malkmus] was sort of more influenced by bands like Fairport Convention, certainly for one, and Incredible String Band, for two, and old Kinks. So he was just listening to like older rock music and some older jazz music. I just think that's the reason why it's different."
Brighten the Corners was recorded last summer at Mitch Easter's studio in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Nastanovich says the band, which also includes guitarist Scott Kannberg, drummer Mark West and bassist Mark Ibold, was perhaps as refreshed and motivated as they've ever been when work began on the CD.
"We had a significant chunk of time off before we made it," he explains. "At the end of 1995, I would say we were as burned out about being in Pavement as we ever had been. Lollapalooza was really long and kind of a drain, and I think we just needed to refocus. So basically we toured for a month in 1996 at the start, just on the western half of the country, and then we took several months off and recorded in the summer. We started from scratch on this album. Just about every song on the record we'd never played before. They were sort of drawn up in those months we had off by Stephen at his house in Portland. So that was different, because on Wowee Zowee it was sort of a situation where we had all these songs that we had been playing live for a couple of years that we felt we should put out, and this one we were in hot, steamy North Carolina trying to make up Pavement songs. So it was just a totally different atmosphere."
Brighten the Corners was also the most carefully prepared CD of the band's career. Where Pavement has been legendary for not doing demos and next to no rehearsal before recording previous CDs, for Brighten the Corners they spent three weeks in preproduction before the actual sessions began.
"I think the main thing we learned at this point, which sort of proves how naive we are still after being around for six years, we're basically learning that -- maybe some of us knew it all along -- but it is better for us to rehearse," Nastanovich says. "And one of the difficulties about it is the fact that we all five still remain in different parts of the U.S., and it's just kind of difficult for us to get together. But I think that just the Brighten the Corners experience taught us that before we play live, and before we record albums, that we need to spend two or three weeks or a month together in order to feel like we're a real band, as opposed to just like a project of people trying to throw songs together. So hopefully it will make for better records in coming years."
There are plenty of critics and indie music fans who think Pavement will have a hard time topping what they've generated so far. Formed in the late 1980s, the band's earliest records -- the EPs Slay Tracks, Demolition Plot J-7 and Perfect Sound Forever, as well as the 1992 full-length debut Slanted and Enchanted -- were made mainly by Malkmus (who went by S.M.) and Kannberg (who went by the nickname "Spiral Stairs"). The EPs established Pavement as a leading newcomer in the independent music underground, while Slanted and Enchanted took Pavement aboveground and was lauded as one of the year's best records.
The next CD, Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, saw the arrival of West and Ibold in the lineup, and became the first CD recorded primarily by the full band. It was also a watershed in that critical praise for it exceeded the encomiums bestowed on Slanted and Enchanted. Pavement seemed primed for a major breakthrough, and then came Wowee Zowee, which was greeted by a distinctly mixed reception. Considering the glowing reviews so far, though, Brighten the Corners appears to have restored luster to the band's critical reputation.
Of course, mainstream pop fans may not understand what all the clamor is about. Pavement has a way of sounding disjointed, and even though the band frequently uncorks an accessible and appealing guitar pop hook, it's just as apt to quickly sidetrack the hook with some quirky left turn. This approach pops up frequently on Brighten the Corners, where songs such as "Shady Lane," "Stereo" and "We Are Underused" offer glimpses of pure pop before twisting toward weirder musical territory.
To Nastanovich, the odd jumps in Pavement's music are a big part of the group's charm. "I think that just comes from the type of guitar rock that the five members of this band really love," he says. "We like pretty skewed and strange guitar stuff. We use all kinds of alternate tunings, and I think all of us are ... all five members of this band ... at this point, half our lives [we] have liked pretty strange rock music. So we try to be pretty confusing. That's sort of what entertains us."
Pavement performs at Numbers, 300 Westheimer, Thursday, May 29. Doors open at 8 p.m. Tickets are $12. Royal Trux and Bis open. For info, call 629-3700.
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