It's one of the little ironies of indie-pop that Pavement has hit its creative stride just as much of its initial, underground crowd has grown tired of the band.
The postpunk rule of career management has long been that you either reach a mass audience by your fourth or fifth album--in which case your original cult abandons you--or you stay a cult band and start to seem like yesterday's news to that cult.
Pavement has never actively sought stardom, but neither has it allowed itself to be hamstrung by the rigid lo-fi aesthetic that made people fall in love with 1992's debut album, Slanted and Enchanted. So, while it may irk a few old fans that for the new Terror Twilight they've gone 24-track with Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich, in fact, it's a combination made in heaven.
The band has always straddled the line between dreamy tunefulness and sloppy, smart-ass dissonance, and Godrich helps them play up the dreaminess, to generally good effect. Front man Steve Malkmus has rarely sounded so genuine, so unabashed about his ability to evince vocal prettiness. "You Are a Light" and "Ann Don't Cry" are spacy, majestic ballads with few precedents in the band's catalogue. Even the more rocking moments, such as "Cream of Gold," have a tightness and sense of precision that the group used to shy away from, with frequently annoying results.
Pavement's days of unchallenged hipness may be behind them and their prospects for stardom may border on nonexistent, but Terror Twilight is about something more important than these artificial considerations: real musical growth. As Malkmus croons on one of the album's lilting highlights: "Bring on the major leagues."
The Flaming Lips
The Soft Bulletin
With the departure of longtime Flaming Lips human noisemaker/guitarist Ronald Jones in 1996, it would be understandable if the next Lips project was missing a little something. Often, when a band continues on in the absence of one of its former key players, the effect is like an engine without all of its cylinders: It may still run, but it just isn't right.
Happily, this is not the case with The Soft Bulletin, the first Lips offering since Jones left the band. It is a great record, a bit like a lost soundtrack to a '70s sci-fi love story that was never made. It's an underwater sonic tour with Wayne Coyne's Neil Young-meets-the-Muppets voice dripping with everyman sincerity. His little-boy voice is complemented by a warped backdrop of piano, melted string sounds and big-ass drums.
The near song cycle begins with "Race for the Prize," the story of two scientists racing for a "cure," set to a Lawrence Welk synth-string aura. It seems like we are in for story hour, as the scientists are featured in the next song, "A Spoonful Weighs a Ton," a slow, soft continuation of the opener's themes. More than a minute into it, however, the song reaches a string-induced crescendo, and explodes into a fuzzy bass and drum loop that would make the best stereo sound like the speakers are blown. And then it returns to its previous mode, as if nothing has happened, from flatline to heart attack and back with no acknowledgement of the dichotomy.
This happens a lot on this mercurial recording. Just as the listener settles into a groove, the song morphs into something new, maybe to return to the original tone, maybe not. All in all, "Superman" may best crystallize the band's vision for this outing, with drums that fill the room, chunky piano chords and lyrics concerning the weight of the world: "Tell everybody waiting for Superman/He hasn't dropped them, forgot them, or anything/It's just too heavy for Superman."
Bulletin is a lush, happy-pill-hued trip, with a bittersweet aftertaste that leaves you wanting more.
Randy Newman has made a career out of exposing the ugly underbelly of human nature. Aside from his eccentric musical gifts--which meld pop-standard constructions with blues and New Orleans R&B--what has always stood out about Newman is that he's put himself inside the heads of the selfish and bigoted subjects of his songs. He's never given you the comfort of laughing from a distance. The laughter he elicited with songs like "Rednecks" and "Roll With the Punches" was always somewhat nervous, laced with discomfort.
That's why Newman retains a prickly edge even after 31 years as a recording artist, even after establishing a cushy cottage industry for himself (as his uncle Alfred once did) as a movie composer.
Soundtracks and the stage musical Faust have kept Newman unusually busy in the '90s, but Bad Love qualifies as the first "true" Newman album since 1989's Land of Dreams. What sets Bad Love apart from Newman's previous work is that while most of his previous subjects (like the casual nihilist of "Political Science" or the Southern lunkhead of "Rednecks") were easy enough to separate from Newman himself, with these songs, Newman is targeting a character much like he would be, if his scruples flew out the window.
With his typical flair for the unfashionable, Newman dares to make pop's first male-menopause album, even mocking his musical-dinosaur status in a way that vain baby-boomer peers like Mick Jagger and David Bowie would consider anathema.
"Shame" focuses on an aging would-be Lothario who tries to finesse a hot young babe by alternately boasting about his wealth or moaning about his ill health. As he sinks further into the depths of depravity ("God damn it you little bitch, I'd kill you if I didn't love you"), female back-up singers undermine him by chanting "Shame Shame Shame."
The hilarious "I'm Dead (But I Don't Know It)" employs schlock-rock guitars to tell the story of an aging rocker who's lost it but refuses to face the facts: "Each record that I'm making is like a record that I've made/Just not as good."
On a purely musical level, Bad Love can't compete with the inspired heights Newman reached on Sail Away or 12 Songs, but its lyrics are as brutal and brilliant as ever. Rather than adopting the typical pop tactic--dye your hair and pretend that the aging process hasn't happened--Newman laughs at what the years have done to him, and the result is a record that makes a fine companion piece to the gallows humor of Bob Dylan's recent Time Out of Mind.