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Tucson Weekly Big As They Wanna Be

Pavement Sticks To The Road Less Traveled

By Brendan Doherty

SEPTEMBER 22, 1997:  SINCE 1991 NOTHING in the music world has consistently delivered like Pavement. The band is quietly leading a sincere revolution, knitting a genuine boyish irony and bookish intellectualism to instantly memorable songs. Unlike its suicidal or derivative contemporaries of the early part of this decade, Pavement is likely the only band that future rock-and-roll professors will teach a class about.

Pavement began as a recording collective that sent tapes back and forth across the country. In its short career, it's become a refined cultural property that's arguably the sole evidence of musical intelligence in people under 30. The reason its members have waited six years to play Tucson is that someone tried to pick a fight with four of them when they stopped over at the Club Congress before their Lollapalooza date in Phoenix. They don't dress like rock stars. They don't court fame. For a number of years, they refused to appear in Rolling Stone or play in certain clubs in San Francisco.

"We've done everything but appear in the KKK Weekly," says Pavement's principal songwriter, Stephen Malkmus, from his phone in Portland, Oregon. "There's not much ideology like that left in this band. We're at this point in the career when we railed against 'The Man' for a while, and then joined the pursuit for materialism--not completely," he says, "but you know."

Everywhere is the self-critic's worst sight: the exaggerated self, and quick on its heels, even within Malkmus' songs, is the humor as a salve. Exaggeration aside, Pavement has found itself as the indie Beatles, without all the baby-boomer bullshit. It remains the Second Coming in the eyes of critics, graduate students and indie watchers. Each of its releases, in hindsight, has a distinct flair that epitomizes the evolution of a particularly '90s kind of music. Its records are distinct responses through the prismatic fan lens to the Fall, Can, Clean and the Swell Maps. "Demolition Plot J-7," the band's second 45, is the gem in a dirty tiara of 1988-'91 noise-core style small releases that were sonically murky and as ethereal as dreams.

Pavement captured more than the collective musical moment on several of its past releases, as well. Slanted and Enchanted, the 1991 masterpiece that still wears well, is the group's point of emergence, fully formed as the singular best release of the entire early '90s low-fi movement. For most bands, Slanted would have been a career; but 1994's golden pop-drenched Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain showcased a band with a new drummer (the first one, Gary Young, was in his 40s and was difficult to keep behind the drumset at shows) and skillful ability to deliver meaningful songs at an increased fidelity. The band's "sophomore slump," if any, was 1995's under-appreciated and misunderstood Wowee Zowee. The members returned to form with this year's Abbey Road, the '70s-fried big rock Brighten the Corners. Polished and elegant, it's the band's most mellow and lyrically dark record, as well as the most ambitious and beautifully rendered. The CD will likely not reserve Pavement a seat on the Mount Olympus of rock radio, if only because the first single, "Stereo," mocks the entire concept.

"We don't have to work jobs, and that's all we wanted," Malkmus says. "Making records is just fun. Anyone would want to do it, really."

But, oh, the way these five make records--punchy like poems and wittier than any other white kids their age manage to be. Malkmus and Steve Kannberg, the principal songwriters of Pavement, have honed their skill to razor sharpness. Once courted by every major label on the planet, the band has stayed with Matador. Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain sold over 200,000 copies, and the others have hovered around 100,000.

"You don't have to dumb down your vision," Malkmus says, which may be the Pavement manifesto. "You don't have to be that. I'm not cut out for that, either. We, as a band, are as big as the Replacements when I liked them most. We're as big as we want to be. I think when you influence a wider group, you're not able to do anything more interesting than at this particular level. Look at Beck--he's above us. It's kitsch up there. He doesn't use his cultural power except to make videos funny. He's rich, but I don't see what you get from it, except a headache. Being rich is nice. It's what drives a lot of people. It's not what drives me.

"We don't try to be intentionally brainy," Malkmus says. "It's wordy, some of our stuff, but you can still hum the tune. I like things in the car to sing along to. I like some more literate stuff, but rock and roll should still be about cigarettes and alcohol and fun and shagging and making out and stuff like that.

"It takes a middle class kid to say that, I guess," Malkmus concludes.

Malkmus doesn't read what gets printed about him any more, so he's near 30. He was born in Los Angeles. He grew up in Stockton, California, where there was nothing but heat and stink from the cows. In the ninth grade he was kicked out of private school for an adult beverage-related incident. He studied history at the University of Virginia, where he spun records at the local college station (filching a few rare Fall records, and a first-class education in Krautrock), only to graduate "by the skin of my teeth." He traveled around for eight months and then fell into working as a guard at the Whitney Museum in New York City. Fellow Pavement member Bob Nastonovich parlayed his UVA degree into a promising career as a New York City bus driver. Not hard to figure out where the anti-downsizing anthem, "We are Underused," came from on Brighten the Corners.

Though it may be difficult for the uninitiated to understand why these guys are on the cover of Magnet, and running through ink in The New Yorker, Rolling Stone and Pulse!; but there's something about everything they do. It has the pregnancy of anticipation of hot cultural property. Unlike bands of the moment, their work endures. Courtney Love called Malkmus the "Grace Kelly of Rock."

"We'll probably keep doing this and become like the Allman Brothers," Malkmus says. "A second-division band that sticks together."

Pavement performs with The Geraldine Fibbers and Wise Folk Malcontent at 9 p.m. Wednesday, September 24, at Club Congress, 311 E. Congress St. Tickets are $10 in advance, $12.50 day of show. For more information, call 622-8848.

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