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Scott Kannberg (aka Spiral Stairs) was the guitarist in Pavement who couldn’t sing. No, the other guitarist who couldn’t sing. Playing Entwistle to Stephen Malkmus’ Townshend (or, if you’re feeling sinister, Dave Davies to Malkmus’ Ray), Kannberg checked in on most of Pavement’s records with at least a couple or three oddball mood-shifters. Sometimes, the mood shifted to snarky and clotted, as with “Hit the Plane Down,” the all-static-and-no-hook skronkfest that sets up Malkmus’ caustic rock ‘n’ roll lullaby “Fillmore Jive” toward the end of Pavement’s still-amazing Crooked Rain Crooked Rain.
Sometimes, though, Kannberg chimed in with a genuine indie classic of his own, such as the woozy rock anthem “Kennel District,” which may be the best two minutes 59 on Pavement’s underrated 1995 effort, Wowee Zowee. And for my money, two of the very few reasons to burn up valuable hard-drive space ripping MP3s from Pavement’s should’ve-been-last LP, 1997’s Brighten the Corners, are Kannberg’s Bunnymen-damaged “Passat Dream” and, especially, “Date With Ikea,” a blissfully Byrdsian treatise on (maybe) homesickness, recreational consumerism, and the mind-numbing pleasures of flipping through Ikea catalogs. “The actress is always breaking things,” Kannberg sings, purportedly about his new wife. Good thing, then, that they’re all made out of particleboard. That stuff’s pretty cheap to replace.
On All This Sounds Gas, Kannberg’s post-Pavement full-length debut (billed in typically cryptic fashion under the name Preston School of Industry), the ex-Pavementeer sometimes seems out to prove that the same is true of a certain former co-conspirator. “Whalebones,” the gently head-bobbing opening cut, is an opulent sound gallery, replete with guitars that pierce and ring in that slow-motion, near-jam-band cadence that, in one of indie rock’s most unpredictable developments, Pavement eventually perfected. “Played their final show of a lifetime,” Kannberg intones midway through the song, never looking back. Except that maybe he does: “Genius heading home again,” he offers later in the track. “And the silver lights are beginning to end.”
A slam on one-time Silver Jew Malkmus? Who knows. But with the assistance of Andrew Borger and Jon Erickson (from indie-rock up-and-comers the Moore Brothers), and Gary Young, studio honcho and drummer on Pavement’s breakthrough Slanted and Enchanted LP, Kannberg serves up what sounds like a pretty solid Pavement recordminus Malkmus’ trademark quirks and inscrutable wordplay. Guitars swirl and crunch, fragile melodies rise up out of a dense mix, and Kannberg holds court like the once-and-future indie-rock kingpin he is. The even better news is that there’s not one iota of the post-Creedence chooglin’ blues that Malkmus had begun cultivating a fetish for around the period of Pavement’s timely demise. (See, especially, “Folk Jam,” from the group’s tenure-ending Terror Twilight, and “The Hook,” from Malkmus’ own top-shelf solo debut, which was released earlier this year.)
In retrospect, the lackluster final Pavement disc now sounds like a series of breakup notes from Malkmus to his bandmates, whose uninspired playing on the album makes it obvious that they were as puzzled by the merely fair-to-middling songs their leader was offering as many of the group’s longtime fans. Kannberg seems to zero in on that development, too, with the aptly titled “Encyclopedic Knowledge Of.” A noisy but nonetheless Beatlesque slice of tuneful psychedelia, the track wrings all the excess emotion it can muster from the main riff of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” Meanwhile, Kannberg presents a slanted and disenchanted retelling of the Icarus story, with Malkmus apparently cast in the lead role: “You could say/Didn’t want it to be that way/Encyclopedic knowledge of/This has all gone to your head.” A little later, the singer gets even more direct: “You know you’ve gotta follow the sun/But your heart’s not quite in it.”
Getting direct was never part of Pavement’s plan, of course, with Kannberg often following Malkmus’ lead down the path of willful obscurity. That impulse crops up more than a few times on All This Sounds Gas, too, with Kannberg occasionally dousing some surefire hooks with overamped guitars and lyrics that scan like a series of Burroughs cutups. But “A Treasure @ Silver Bank (This Dynasty’s for Real),” for instance, lives up to its non sequitur of a title thanks mostly to such trad-rock sonic elements as gracefully strummed acoustic guitar, well-placed flourishes of pedal steel, and a loping, faux C&W beat, all of which goose the song’s melody in the direction of another Pavement classic, “Range Life.” A sly, understated organ riff turns up on the chorus, washing over the chord changes and carrying the track off somewhere in the direction of a long-lost Nashville-period Elvis Costello and the Attractions B-side.
“Falling Away,” a fractured rewrite of the Cure’s “In Between Days,” is nearly as good, and “Doping for Gold” is even better, a convincing, AOR-ish rocker that slurs the chord progression of the Rolling Stones’ “Street Fighting Man” en route to a cacophonous, Sonic Youth-style guitar meltdown. On All This Sounds Gas, Kannberg’s influences are much more apparent than they ever were in Pavement, which drew heavily on all the aforementioned (as well as the Velvet Underground, the Fall, New Order, and Jim Croce, among others) but covered its tracks pretty effectively with perfectly rendered lo-fi aesthetics and those goofy falsetto refrains.
Unsurprisingly, All This Sounds Gas comes with a few of those, too. But despite his reliance on his former band’s crumpled bag of sonic tricks, Kannberg also introduces a few new ones: “Encyclopedic Knowledge Of” is decked out with a swell, horn-driven coda, and “Solitaire,” a bouncy ode to the pleasures of going it alone, features the horns plus a Moog, a surprisingly potent combination. And though he’s still not much of a vocalist, Kannberg has finally learned to sing-speak with nearly as much melodic authority as, say, Stephen Malkmus. It’s true, of course, that that particular indie-rock poster boy was the songwriter of record for most of Pavement’s slayest tracks, but Kannberg’s festive coming-out party at the Preston School makes a compelling and thoroughly listenable case for his own considerable charms. CP