Fresh Ground

Stephen Malkmus leaves Pavement behind with a slanted and enchanting solo debut

"Maybe if we were all musical geniuses, it could have all worked in that short span of time. We could have kept it all going. But I think we ran out of different ways of saying the same thing together."

If Pavement provided Malkmus with little creative nutrition over the years, it did offer him a sense of kinship that he was reluctant to part with. Guitarist Scott Kannberg has been Malkmus' closest friend since the third grade, when they met on an elementary school soccer field in Stockton, California. And the racetrack enthusiasm that Malkmus shares with percussionist Bob Nastanovish resulted in them jointly investing in a promising racehorse (which, like Pavement, has since been put out to pasture).

"I would just as soon hang around with a lot of those guys as anyone else," he says. "My friends kept it going. It wasn't really an aesthetic. The band had been suffering slightly for many years. But I think we were still doing an admirable job of keeping up with the tide of pretty-goodness and almost-greatness that was the '90s."

Malkmus: Master of the smart-ass non sequitur and the angular guitar hook.
Malkmus: Master of the smart-ass non sequitur and the angular guitar hook.

Details

Scheduled to perform on Thursday, March 15, with Creeper Lagoon. Showtime is 8 p.m.
Nita's Hideaway in Tempe

After completing the lugubrious Terror Twilight, Malkmus was looking for a new musical spark, and he found it in bassist Joanna Bolme and drummer John Moen, Portland music veterans introduced to him by former Spinanes leader Rebecca Gates.

The resulting music will be familiar to any longtime fan of Malkmus' gifts for the smart-ass non sequitur and the angular guitar hook. But the album delivers a few stylistic curveballs, such as the breezy pop goof "Phantasies," in which Malkmus' "oh-uh-oh" chorus tips its hat to the 1983 After the Fire novelty hit "Der Kommissar."

With "The Hook," a metaphoric coming-of-age yarn disguised as an account of being kidnapped by Turkish pirates, Malkmus ventures deeper into classic-rock terrain than ever before, with a chunky guitar riff and cowbell beat straight out of "Honky Tonk Women."

As if to show that his writing can be more than "sublime nonsense," as a sympathetic critic once said, Malkmus even sustains a coherent narrative with "Jenny & the Ess-Dog," the story of a doomed May-December romance, coupled with one of the most infectious melodies he's ever conjured. Best of all, the gorgeously lilting "Church on White" -- a requiem for author Robert Bingham -- confirms that as he gets older, Malkmus is increasingly willing to drop his sardonic shield, and convey real emotional vulnerability.

But Malkmus believes he long ago found his particular musical niche, and he doesn't see any reason to venture too far outside the limitations he's placed on himself. To the degree that he wanted the album to differ at all from Pavement's established sound, he simply hoped that it would be "a little peppier."

While the sluggish tempos of Terror Twilight suggested that Pavement's collective energy level was beginning to dim, the band nonetheless managed to sidestep the pitfalls of music-biz whininess and jaded world-weariness that dragged down so many of rock's cult heroes.

Pavement's saving grace may have been that, unlike the Ramones -- who never got over the fact that being influential couldn't get them the airwaves -- or the Replacements -- who knew they were a great band and were permanently deflated when they didn't attain commensurate stardom -- Malkmus and Co. kept their expectations low and were never disappointed. When Malkmus and Kannberg put Pavement together as a four-track recording project in the late '80s, their only goal, as Kannberg once put it, was to "put a single out, to have something in the history of music."

Any popular success was gravy for these guys, and the underground phenomenon of Pavement's 1992 debut album, Slanted and Enchanted, merely signified to Malkmus that he could say goodbye to his job as a guard at the Whitney Museum. With the release of 1994's tuneful Crooked Rain Crooked Rain, Pavement officially became rock's flavor of the month, name-checked on The Larry Sanders Show and praised by metal bands desperately trying to look au courant.

Though the band's subsequent work continued to hit such peaks, its aura of invincibility was permanently shattered by the negative reaction to 1995's Wowee Zowie, a frequently beautiful but sprawling mess of a record that can best be described as Pavement's Sandinista!.

The most sure sign that Pavement's stock had dropped came from that notorious name-dropper and pop-culture weather vane Courtney Love. In the spring of '94, Love swooned to Spin magazine about Malkmus' dreaminess, calling him "the Grace Kelly of indie rock," and saying the only hip thing Madonna could do at that stage of her career would be to date him. But only a year and a half later, after touring with Pavement -- among others -- on the '95 Lollapalooza tour, Love publicly bemoaned the fact that there were no male artists on the tour with legitimate rock-star sex appeal.

But if Pavement was no longer fashionable, it continued to exert a huge musical impact on bigger-selling bands. Everything from Beck's giddy streams-of-consciousness to Marcy Playground's aloof affectations to Blur's rejection of tidy Brit-pop in favor of chaotic Amerindie rock can be traced back to Malkmus.

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