When their last album, Brighten the Corners, came out, I not only started to like Pavement, I came to love them. Live for them. Maybe it was the awful, eternal pull of the last song on the record, “Fin,” which provided the perfect soundtrack for my dad’s death. Or maybe it was the LP’s first song and single, “Stereo,” which rattled me with its reference to Rush’s Geddy Lee. But probably it was the whole thing: the powdered-wig(ged) harpsichordlike intro to “We Are Underused,” the Secret Service cloak-and-dagger attack of “Embassy Row,” the . . . Christ, I can’t even remember. I just know that this highbrow lo-fi outfit, who’d always left me cold, now had me all hot and bothered. That the lyrics were actually printed— a bourgeois conceit they’ve carefully avoided ‘fore and since— sealed the deal by making it easy for me to wade into the weird wordplay of Stephen Malkmus (though I’m not sure if two strong songs with brand-name titles, “Date With Ikea” and “Passat Dream,” weren’t written by Scott Kannberg, who sang them).
Either way, it also helped that I saw them live in San Francisco, on a Sunday night, late, at one of those unannounced pre-tour intimate shows, where they played to a couple hundred cultists. I didn’t have a ticket; they just let me in after two songs— literally the last dude in the door. And it was magical. Malkmus wore a burgundy scarf, and standing up there, his body cocked at an angle, told us to “leave the angles for the shills.” Backstage afterward he sipped Clausthaler and worked a New York Times crossword. And kept the scarf on. Not that I was backstage myself, but the 16–year–old kids I went with sneaked back there and, using my disposable camera, mugged with Malkmus for a now-you’re-stalking snapshot. I slept in my car rather than make the two-hour drive home, and my mom got pissed. My dad, who at that time looked like he might still make it, just shook his head.
Last Wednesday at Irving Plaza, then, was a special moment for me, because it was the first time I’d seen Pavement since. And unfortunately but understandably, it wasn’t the same. Don’t get me wrong. The show was great, so to speak, as is the new long-player, Terror Twilight. But seeing them in a bigger place, with 1000 other people, when they’d just flown in BOAC and appeared to be combating butterflies with beverages . . . something was missing. Namely Malkmus’s scarf (though he did seem to be wearing some kind of ascot). He made a great show of clearing his throat, and gave his chest a hypochondriac patting during the show’s opening tune, one I wouldn’t know, because, as I say, I only got into them on their last record.
Scarf or no scarf, it was still a thrill to see them perform the new material. I’m a hippie who spent way too much time as a kid asking myself, “What about the voice of Geddy Lee, how did it get so high?” As a result, I tend to be way too forgiving toward groups who try to grow, or as we used to say, “progress.” Ergo, for me, the new Pavement record is necessarily better than the last one. The first single, “Spit on a Stranger” (nice title; elsewhere Malkmus remarks that “You’re a nice guy/And I hate you for that”), has a Beatlesy feel— which is a pretty weak description, but how else to characterize Malkmus’s vocals when he sings flat-out rather than flatly? “Folk Jam,” meanwhile, approaches the bounce of Bringing It All Back Home Dylan or Pavement’s central-Cali forefathers, Creedence, with lyrics that don’t try to be woodsy or rootsy but actually deal with folk— i.e., the harsh realities of “family trees.” And “Ann Don’t Cry” makes me do just that (I even bawled when they played it live— how creepy!) Maybe because my mom’s name is Ann.
At any rate, the bulk of the concert devoted itself to new material— much like the last time I saw them— and while that meant no string of surefire crowd pleasers (no “Range Life” or “Haircut”), it also meant Pavement have guts. They even have chops, as evidenced by their pulling off the new joint’s more rockin’ “blues” and hard-rock tracks. “Platform Blues,” which on disc sounds as if it’s played backward, beginning with the end of a sleazy Skynyrd/ Groundhogs groove, came off onstage as if it were played forward. And although the jazzy tripartite mini-epic “See, Speak, Remember” was a fiasco and had to be cut short (“Thanks for cheering after that,” Malkmus demurs), the two most bitchen jams— the dangerously grungy “Cream of Gold” and glam-goth goof “Billie”— came off with few enough hitches to allay any suspicions that Terror Twilight‘s art-rock arrangements are smoke and mirrors supplied by producer Nigel Godrich.
Of course the OG Pavement never needed a coproducer, never rocked in unashamedly rockist ways, and still occasionally makes a cameo, as on the elegantly dinky ditty “Major Leagues,” which musically continues the riff of “Range Life” and lyrically laments the ultimate “relationship” with that Great White Whore, the record biz (“you kiss like a rock but you know I need it anyway”). “Bring on the major leagues,” Malkmus sings, again flat-out and not flat. And even though it’s an empty challenge— he had his chance to be called up from Triple A ball around the time of the even-more-scattered-and-flaky-than-usual Wowee Zowee and deliberately blew it— for some reason you believe he’s sincere. Better late than never.