Pavement – Brighten the Corners

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Starts with two of the best Pavement songs there ever was:

1. “Stereo” might be Pavement’s catchiest single since “Cut Your Hair,” with an actual chorus that’s going to shake and bake you – turn it up loud when you’re riding somewhere as the “hi-ho silver ride” commands and shout “HO! LISTEN TO ME! I’M ON THE STEREO! STEREO-HOH!” at the top of your lungs with Malkmus. And like “Cut Your Hair,” the words are ironic, popmatters‘ Arnold Pan writes: “Is “Stereo” a self-effacing dig at Pavement never becoming as popular as some had predicted or an almost earnest last gasp to live up to its commercial potential before the opportunity slipped away?” But it’s not just catchy, it’s funny too, flipping a thin Smashing Pumpkins insult to internal ponderings about Rush (“What about the voice of Geddy Lee? / How did it get so high? / I wonder if he speaks like an ordinary guy / (I know him and he does!).” Similarly, there’s the other bit of dialogue worth noting: “You’re my fact-checking cous’ / (Awww…)”, recalling a similar moment in The Velvet Underground’s “The Gift,” all while the guitars constantly threaten to break their way out of the soundproof walls.

2. “Shady Lane / J. Vs. S.” is Pavement’s greatest triumph from a lyrical perspective: you’re not going to find as many classic Stephen Malkmus-isms in such a short amount of time (without the added instrumental, “Shady Lane” lasts only a little longer than 2 and a half minutes). Really, every line is quotable, but the specifics: “A redder shade of neck / On a whiter shade oftrash” hiding the words “redneck” and “white trash” as highlighted; the way Shephen Malkmus sings “You’re so beautiful to look at…” and finishes it with the speedier delivery of “…when you cry” successfully creating another uncliche romantic tale to add to “Gold Soundz”’s opening lines to its final verse; the entirety of “Freeze, don’t move / You’ve been chosen as an extra in the movie adaptation / Of the sequel to your life.” Truthfully, only Stephen Malkmus can manage to create meaning out of meaninglessness: the juxtaposition between the way he runs through “It’s everybody’s God”’s to the way he concludes the choruses (“All that we want is a shady la-a-a-ane”) was enough for me to add “a shady lane” to my Christmas list, right after “a range life.” Musically, it doesn’t slouch around: the chord progression during the verses is familiar, certainly (as it is true for most of the album), but the fingerpicked guitar in the choruses don’t quite sound natural – listen closely. The instrumental “J vs. S” is a goodie, too; pre-Autumnish guitar (right after everyone leaves), some sound effects for good measure. 

After that? This is where the cracks in the Pavement start to show. Sorry, couldn’t resist. This is where their cheeks have lost their luster, luster, luster, luster. Sorry, couldn’t resist. There’s a dip in quality that the album never recovers from until “Starlings of the Slipstream” with its lovely ululations and “Fin” with its military drumming (“Westie Can Drum” indeed) and lovely melodies. Sure, “Transport is Arranged” has the album’s most touching line (“A voice coach taught me to sing, he couldn’t teach me to love”), more pre-Autumnish instrumentation in the keyboard/mellotron, a good transitioning guitar line between verses and the album’s best crescendo in the instrumental section, but I personally think returning to the verse as they did wasn’t the best of ideas; like they didn’t know where to go from the climax so they picked the most obvious route (ie. the song could have ended at the 3:00 mark). Sure, “Date w/ IKEA” is Scott Kannberg’s best song, with the guitars sometimes extra jangly and sometimes extra lo-fi and whenever his voice can be clearly understood, so too, can his personal problems (“MY TIME IS WASTED!”). 

But the six song stretch from tracks 5 – 10? Euhhhhhh… I mean, I like some parts, certainly: the backing vocals in the first part of “Embassy Row,” the guitar riff right after the first part ends; the choruses of “Blue Hawaiian.” But that’s just it: parts. Songs often feel like ideas strung together to force a more holistic experience to make Brighten the Corners the logical sequel to Crooked Rain Crooked Rain after the tangent-ful tangent that was Wowee Zowee, but these songs are never greater than the sum of their parts, whereas that was true on both those albums. It doesn’t help that there’s a larger focus here than ever before on instrumentation, but aside from the songs that I’ve already mentioned, the instrumental passages never hit home (Stephen Malkmus will make the same mistake in his solo career in 2008’s Real Emotional Trash). Elsewhere, I can’t recall a thing about “Old Begin” despite having heard it multiple times before writing and the less I recall about “Type Slowly,” the better. And Scott Kannberg’s other offering, “Passat Dream,” is commendable for being vaguely tuneful after the dreck of “We Are Underused”, but vague melodies aren’t enough to hold 4 minute songs together. 

It doesn’t help that Brighten the Corners has Stephen Malkmus’s goofiest lyrics, and if you’re going to tell me that he was always a goof, you’re not paying attention: the two best Pavement albums opened with yearning question-statements of “This is the city life / Let’s talk about leaving” and “Maybe we can dance, together?”, and the latter example followed up with call to arms in “Boys are dying on these streets” and “Fight this generation.” Sure, he sometimes wasn’t so serious, but the music followed suit (see: “Unfair”). Here, we have lyrics without rhyme or reason on mellow songs; “Type Slowly” goes “One of us is a cigar stand / And one of us is a lovely blue incandescent guillotine” in a way that feels too ironic, and no, as cool a line as “When the capital’s S, it is followed by a T — and it’s probably me” might be, it means nothing. And some of the songs that I wrote positively about aren’t safe either: Malkmus follows “A voice coach taught me to sing, he couldn’t teach me to love” with “All the above,” and it’s a far cry from what “My heart is made of gravy” did for “Maybe someone’s going to save me” on “AT&T” (all the above what?), and there are more questionable lines on “Starlings on a Slipstream” than there are quotable ones (ie. “I put a spycam in a sorority”; most of the last verse after “Mother, I forgot”).

Long story short: download tracks 1-2-3-4-11-12 and your favorite songs off Terror Twilight and we’d have another classic Pavement record. 

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