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By saying that Pavement is indie aristocracy, I don’t mean that it epitomizes High Indie style. That distinction falls to such bands as Versus, described by Alternative Press as “perhaps the preeminent indie band today,” Superchunk, and maybe—if they get lucky—the painfully Pavement-derivative Archers of Loaf (the Village Voice‘s Robert Christgau already thinks they’re deserving).
If this strikes you as a somewhat mediocre short list, it is, but that’s intended in a non-pejorative, etymologically faithful (“halfway up a mountain”) way. These are bands that I like enough to want them to be better than they really are. Characteristic expressions: Versus’ Teenbeat debut The Stars Are Insane, a record I listened to over and over in hope of hearing something that was almost but not quite there, and nearly anything by Superchunk at full throttle on a good night. I can’t see how anyone who likes music—you know, kind of the way you like food—could fail to like ‘chunk, and—objectively speaking, of course—they sure put on a rocking show. But it just doesn’t ignite, flickering instead with the high spark of low-yield joys. Maybe they’ll get up that hill, but something tells me they won’t.
These High Indie exemplars lack star quality. If you invoke the gods of D.I.Y. and say that’s precisely the point, I’d say yes, that’s quite reassuring, but there are alternatives, even for the scenebound. Yo La Tengo’s Georgia Hubley is self-effacing to a fault, but her query “Do you know how I feel?/How I feel about you?,” given as her tranquil moon-faced gaze floated above a 9:30 Club crowd in February 1994, remains in my mind a model of pop transcendence. A year earlier on the same stage, Mark Robinson and Bridget Cross of Unrest attained something of the same caliber when they whirled “Yes She Is My Skinhead Girl” into the aural embodiment of prelapsarian sex—something I hadn’t previously considered could fit into a pop song. Given such exceptions, High Indie, precisely because it is scene-based (and it’s untoward to upstage your friends), has ossified into a style rooted in the probable.
Pavement, however, in its race to the heavens, chooses to do these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard. It would be poor form to allow them to look hard, though, because aristocrats if nothing else have class. And class connotes ease. So Pavement resides somewhere better (and more relaxed) than at the tip of the High Indie peak (which may not even exist—if our climbers are stranded halfway up, how would we know?), basking in a light more permanent than that which shone upon Tengo and Unrest and made them for a single song on a single night The Greatest Band in the World.
Head Paver Stephen Malkmus has star quality, like Kurt Cobain (who had it even before Nevermind—this is an attribute of performance, not mere personality or acclaim), Liz Phair (who rocks like neither the girls nor the boys, but on her own terms), Elastica’s Justine Frischmann (a paragon of sexy cool), even—gulp!—Michael Stipe (who, like Malkmus, tries to pretend he’s just one of the guys in the band but never quite succeeds). Bono and Prince have it, but it is concocted and falls victim to an equally false and severe ridiculousness. Courtney Love, like Johnny Rotten before her, shows that it is not easily damaged by boorishness. Love, who incidentally chooses to be boorish but understands class, has astutely dubbed the “well-bred” Malkmus “the Grace Kelly of indie rock.”
If such assays of star and scene leave you feeling vexed, you aren’t the only one. You need a refuge, and that is just what Princess Malk and his entourage have provided on Pavement’s third long-player, Wowee Zowee—an ultra-arch, unshapely, and wholly successful rumination on stardom, favor, and the need for a holiday.
On Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, Zowee‘s predecessor, such songs as “Cut Your Hair,” “Range Life,” and “Fillmore Jive” offered a casually keen appraisal of the culture of rock, from start-up to fame to fade-out. Rain‘s marketability led many to surmise that with its follow-up, Pavement would go major. Instead it has returned from the now-obligatory retreat to Memphis with another Matador release, but one less commercial, more chimerical, and even more self-possessed than before. Whatever the low-rent version of retiring to the piano in your Swiss chalet is, Malkmus has been at it.
The maddening thing is just how hard he plays his conceit against itself. Never one to assume a pose without understanding its implications, Malkmus pokes fun from all sides. That way he still gets what he wants—a reprieve—by admitting how ludicrous it is to begin with, being rather inappropriate for someone so young and seemingly untried.
Pardon from one’s profession would appear better suited to the (presumably older) man who figures in the cinematic “Grounded,” which opens with a shimmering two-note guitar figure that emphasizes the time it takes up in passing, then yields to melody and the description “Doctor’s leaving for the holiday season, got crystal icepicks, no gift for the gab,” as if introducing an introspective Bellow protagonist. Pedal steel, the preferred vehicle for the self-indulgent stock-taking of a different, older demographic, animates “Father to a Sister of Thought,” which finds Malkmus musing that perhaps he’s gone soft, that he’s “too much comforted here,” and which provides the same premature sense of an ending that “Here” did on Slanted and Enchanted, Pavement’s full-length debut.
One of the few current bands Malkmus admires is Royal Trux, whose apparently now-relinquished penchant for self-abuse has earned it the right to sound old before its time, and whose bluesy guitar and vocal stylings are imprinted, albeit in rather fey fashion, on “Extradition.” But fey is the way now, as is announced with “We Dance,” the intentionally insufferable album-opener that actually contains the line “Chim, chim, chim, sing a song of praise for your elders,” and is attributed by Malkmus to the effects of the Incredible String Band’s daffy mysticism.
On the record’s one anthem (not that it should be taken as one, of course, and not that it can manage to get around to being even moderately anthemic until almost three minutes have passed), Malkmus makes explicit his aversion to his peers with “Fight This Generation.” Elsewhere he lampoons their self-righteousness, snippily shrieking, “I don’t need no corporation attitude!” in “Serpentine Pad,” which frames its contemporary objection in a classic protest form—class of ’77 Britpunk. This cross-historical formula is inverted on “Brinx Job,” which abuses a schlock-wah lo-fi setting to spout, “We’ve got the money!,” in a gloat recalling the Sex Pistols’ renowned advance-swiping coup.
Although slagging one’s rivals is indispensable to solitary soul-searching, it alone won’t provide direction. For that you must own up to the strain of an expectant audience (as on the first single, “Rattled by the Rush,” on which the singer’s plaint that he’s “drowning for your thirst” is buoyed by a monster riff that sounds like “Dancing Days” with the middle perversely popped out of it—what better way to suggest dislocation than to rock, but not to roll?), reaffirm your commitment to prosody (Zowee brims with feminine rhymes and assonances that push forward against meter to nip at one another’s heels), and come to terms with your station in life (“Rush” climaxes with Malkmus battling guitars for attention to his repeated lament that there’s “no soap in the john,” calling to mind the anguish of violated rider provisions, readjusted for the reduced expectations of the indie world.)
Pavement has once again found a new way to be Pavement. This is something the band has done self-consciously with every new album, perversely announcing each with a title that is sure to find ardent fans asking if Pavement has lost it. (“I wanted to make it like we skipped two albums and made the fifth Pavement record instead of the third,” Malkmus said of Rain.) You might say the ghost of David Bowie hangs over this entire procession, not as a musical inspiration (which was never his import), but as a nonpareil of relentless self-parodic reinvention (which was).
So, is there a Malkmus backlash? Naturally. High Indies hate him, because he’s got style shining out of his behind and because he’s one of the reasons this year’s Lollapalooza is the first worth going to see. Rolling Stone hates him because Pavement didn’t break big (and because guitarist Spiral Stairs, in a self-righteous pique worthy of any High Indie—or of “Serpentine Pad”—refuses to talk to them). But true Paveheads? We love him, because he’s beautiful.