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.

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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).  

Shakti remained but a fond memory in the storied careers of all four musicians until 1996, when McLaughlin reunited with Hussain and Vinayakram and added Hariprasad Chaurasia on bansuri (similar to a flute) in place of L. Shankar, for one song on McLaughlin's album The Promise. A 1997 Shakti tour followed, and five songs from that tour, amounting to two CDs' worth of material, make up the latest entry in the McLaughlin catalog: Remember Shakti.

Remember Shakti evokes images of Shakti because McLaughlin is playing eastern music with two of his old comrades, but the group isn't the same Shakti that shocked the world over two decades ago. L. Shankar is gone, as is his amazing mixture of eastern-western-style violin playing, which was so integral to the group's sound. Replacing Shankar is Chaurasia, an absolutely captivating player with superlative melodic gifts, but who has less western influence than Shankar. McLaughlin's acoustic guitar is also gone, replaced by a darker-sounding hollow-body Gibson electric. In addition to the change in lead instrumentation, this group is more reflective, uses more subtle tonal textures and is more lyrical than the original Shakti.

CD One opens with "Chandrakauns," a 33-minute adventure featuring Chaurasia and Hussain, with Uma Metha on tanpura. Metha's tanpura drones in the background, as Chaurasia's swirling melodic playing intoxicates for a full six minutes before Hussain even enters on tabla. Six minutes of bansuri and tanpura could seem like an eternity to the uninitiated, but Chaurasia's playing is accessible, masterful and beautiful, and it sets up Hussain's entrance marvelously. When Hussain enters, the interplay between him and Chaurasia is absolutely thrilling. Hussain's role varies from adding embellishments with his liquid textures to taking solos to serving as the catalyst that drives Chaurasia into frenetic playing. Though delicate, like an East Indian folk song, "Chandrakauns" is so charming that McLaughlin and Vinayakram are barely missed, which speaks volumes, considering their abilities.

Chaurasia takes a rest on "The Wish," an 18-plus-minute showcase for McLaughlin, Hussain and Vinayakram. Throughout "The Wish" McLaughlin combines his trademark rapid-fire flurries of notes with subtle dynamic shifts and tonal shading. McLaughlin takes off slowly, hitting some neat melodic tones, with occasional speed-demon riffs, but soon Hussain and Vinayakram push him to a mind-blowing climax, filled with blindingly fast notes. This is John McLaughlin, so that shouldn't be surprising, but 20 years ago McLaughlin would never have sounded like this. He places more emphasis on melodic themes today, and while his tone is less fierce, his playing is more sophisticated. A little bit of bite is gone because of the Gibson's warm sound, but McLaughlin's playing and use of shading is in many ways more challenging than what he did in 1979.

"Lotus Feet" is the only song that the original Shakti lineup performed that's on this new record. This version is actually less eastern-sounding than the original. In 1975 Shankar's lead was penetrating, and McLaughlin's acoustic tone clearly eastern. Today Chaurasia's sound is delicate, and McLaughlin's tone is western. Yet the melody's eastern style and the use of the tanpura clearly retain the song's eastern flavor. As one of McLaughlin's best compositions, "Lotus Feet" has a catchy melody and many subtleties. The varied use of percussion (Hussain and Vinayakram are masterful) combined with McLaughlin's unique comping create deep dimensions to what initially sounds like a simple Indian melody.

The second CD begins with "Mukti," which clocks in at 63:30. "Mukti" features the full Shakti quartet, and each member of the group shows his wares with ample solo space. Mysterious and dark, the composition unfolds slowly and deliberately, what with Chaurasia and McLaughlin methodically taking turns establishing the song's mood for more than ten minutes. The percussionists again prove to be integral to the composition, as Hussain and Vinayakram are fonts of colors and rhythmic device. Whether they are adding textures or dueling with McLaughlin or Chaurasia, the percussionists display exquisite taste, and their playing is almost mystical. At one moment they are beating relentlessly, inspiring McLaughlin to go over the edge, and at another moment they are delicately adding color to the picture. Then there's their solos. Though long percussion solos can typically be self-indulgent, here the long solos are captivating, as evidenced by the hoots and hollers of the crowd.

McLaughlin flashes his legendary technique on "Mukti," as it wouldn't be McLaughlin if there weren't at least one track that sent budding guitarists back to the shed. Yet McLaughlin's technique doesn't sound excessive (for that matter, it never has -- only those who can't attain his level tend to criticize his technique). Yes, there are flurries of notes, but the notes serve their purposes. Add in the tremendous synchronicity with Hussain and Vinayakram, and it's a joy to behold. Then there's Chaurasia, billed as the world-renowned master of the bansuri. That's not even hype. Any western musician would be well served to listen to the way Chaurasia ties melodic ideas together and interplays with the percussionists. Though "Mukti" is more than an hour long, the quartet is so hypnotic that at no point is it ever boring.  

Closing out the second disc is "Zakir," a duet featuring McLaughlin and Chaurasia. It is easily the most accessible track, as it's the most "western"-sounding song of the five. Basically it's a ballad with Chaurasia playing beautifully over delicately western chords. Chaurasia's playing is more western here, and McLaughlin's playing is restrained and delicate.

"Shakti" means "creative intelligence beauty and power." Remember Shakti does more than remember shakti, it defines it. No, it's not the original group, Shakti. Perhaps it should be called something else, because the group Shakti conjures up different mental and aural images. But Remember Shakti stands up on its own terms as challenging and rewarding art with unparalleled musicianship. As such, Remember Shakti is another solid chapter in McLaughlin's long, storied musical career.

-- Paul J. MacArthur

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