Terror Twilight

Pavement has something to prove. Overhyped and overpraised, the quintet has, through the course of this decade, been hailed as the genius kings of indie rock, the best band ever and everything just short of the saviors of rock and roll. The truth is, Pavement is a band that strives for greatness more often than most bands, frequently hitting the mark, sometimes failing, but always noble and interesting in its attempts to be majestic.

Terror Twilight, the band's fifth record, delves deeper into the rambling artiness and pretzel-logic pop that critics and grad students salivate over. Produced by Nigel Godrich (Radiohead, Beck) Twilight has few blasts of noise and a broader, more, er, classic rock tunefulness, which has slowly been creeping in over the last couple of records. By focusing less on being a great band and more on writing great songs, the greatness takes care of itself.

There are great songs on Twilight, ditties that prove a group doesn't have to be revolutionary to be important. Few bands are writing honest-to-goodness songs, which is what longevity is all about, as Pavement seems to have realized. The slowed-down simplicity of "The Hexx," with a guitar riff nod to Black Sabbath, has the combination of riskiness and melodiousness that smolders and plinks as the best Pavement songs do. And the album opener, "Spit on a Stranger," has gurgles of keyboards, watery guitars, a bobbing bass line and a rising chorus hook that is pure summertime AM radio. Or the heady, heavy, low-end scraper, "Cream of Gold": It slithers and bubbles on stuttering drums and understated singing from lead singer Steve Malkmus, while swelling gusts of energetic distorted guitars carry it to a crescendo. It's standard Pavement -- semiotic lyrics, shambling rhythms -- but the ending is pure rock and roll joy. Guitars blaze, synthesizers squeak, and the band finishes together on a drawn-out note, cymbals crashing. In a way not heard since Crooked Rain Crooked Rain, the band attacks its songs (even the mellow ones) rather than letting Malkmus record most everything (besides the drums) by himself, as he has done for almost the duration of the band's career. Godrich had the group play together live in the studio.

The band's latest has an underdog spirit, more focused on pop payoff. That's a good attitude considering that Pavement (Malkmus, Bob Nastanovich, Steve West, Mark Ibold and Scott Kannberg) has evolved from mysterious, semi-anonymous noise merchants to an uncomfortable position as respected leaders of underground rock. And since the quintet's third and fourth records, Wowee Zowee and Brighten the Corners, weren't met with the expected universal praise (only some reviewers went overboard), there are equal numbers in the hits-and-misses column on the Pavement scorecard. The band has to demonstrate that it's still capable of surprising and delighting. Like it or not, the group is no longer an outsider outfit. There are expectations placed on Pavement. But how many times can one band reinvigorate or revitalize rock?

Part of Pavement's early charm was its unpredictability. Now aging and getting mellower, Pavement shows signs of tenderness, something the band has been peppering records with since album number two. Terror, then, is not as surprising as Slanted and Enchanted nor littered with the golden pop jewels of Crooked Rain Crooked Rain, but Pavement had marked its territory early on. All that's left to do now is fill in the details.

With so many alt-rock bands from the beginning of the decade kaput, it's comforting in a way that Pavement hasn't outlived its usefulness. Yet.

-- David Simutis

John McLaughlin
Remember Shakti

Remember Shakti? Guitar superhero John McLaughlin's mid-'70s band is quite hard to forget. Shakti teamed McLaughlin with three noted Indian musicians: Violinist L. Shankar, tabla/percussion player Zakir Hussain and ghatam/percussion player T.H. (Vikku) Vinayakram. The result was a legendary West-meets-East group that fused western jazz, blues and rock elements with traditional Indian ragas and rhythmic patterns.

Shakti was a radical departure for McLaughlin. His reputation as a fire-breathing guitarist was based on his work with his seminal jazz-rock fusion band the Mahavishnu Orchestra, a high-intensity, high-volume, electric group that redefined the standards of technical virtuosity. With Shakti, McLaughlin put his fabled electric guitar away and in its place took up a custom-made acoustic based on the Indian vina, replete with sympathetic strings (also called drone strings) and a scalloped fretboard (for increased note bending). Shakti's sound was more eastern than western, and though Shakti's form of world fusion incorporated ridiculously fast tempos, rapid-fire percussion, speed-demon guitar lines that only McLaughlin could play, and piercing violin tones, Shakti was hard for the average jazz-rock fan to digest.

The band's eastern sound and long songs (some ran in excess of 30 minutes) made Shakti a tough sell for Columbia Records, who had no idea how to market the world's premiere jazz guitarist venturing into eastern music. Consequently, Shakti never attained tremendous success in the States. Internationally, however, the group's multicultural flavors proved extremely popular. For three years, Shakti's flame burned white-hot, and then the group disbanded (just like the first incarnation of Mahavishnu).

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