BLIND TASTE TEST: Pavement – Brighten the Corners

James reached out for someone to collaborate on this feature and I readily agreed. We exchanged a few friendly emails and settled on a Pavement album for my submission. I remembered then that James, if not the pickiest of the bastards, might be the crankiest. We had a mild Twitter dustup, if memory serves, before I was privileged enough to contribute to this site, regarding Roxy Music. (For the record, Roxy Music is really good and Bryan Ferry is probably an asshole.)

So now, with some trepidation, I am serving on a platter, Pavement, my favorite American band ever, to someone unfamiliar with the boys from Stockton, CA. There is an argument that the entirety of this “alternative” rock we now love (at least the American strain) was born from the belly of Pixies (esp. Kim Deal) and Pavement. Certainly, a substantial progeny.

So, what do I pick? The ramshackle low fi masterpiece, Slanted and Enchanted? The only very slightly more refined Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain? The unhinged Wowee Zowee (my personal favorite)? The swan song, Twilight Terror? The brilliant, early EP, Watery, Domestic?

I chose Brighten the Corners. Malkmus and the band are at the height of their powers. Adding to it are two really good Spiral Stairs songs (‘Date w/IKEA’ and ‘Passat Dream’). Bob Nastanovich with judicious use of his screaming and adding to a rhythm section completely locked in and on point.

Pavement will get acknowledged for its influence, for sure. It’s more than that. They were (are) a band that rocks and sounds good.

Putting it on now. ‘Pigs, they tend to wiggle when they walk; The infrastructure rots; And the owners hate the jocks’. James?


Thanks Rick. I’ll try to veer away from cranky today, but I can’t guarantee I won’t be picky. Pavement I have certainly been aware of for a very long time, but know very little about them. Indeed I hadn’t made the connection between Stephen Malkmus (likewise familiar in name, unfamiliar otherwise) and the band until just now, so this lets you know I am a total Pavement beginner. Maybe I’ve heard a bunch of their songs before without even knowing it was them? You’ve mentioned Pixies in your intro, more as example than comparison, but I do like a decent amount of their music so if a comparison does exist, then we could be on to a winner. On the other hand, you’ve mentioned ‘screaming’ which is most definitely not my thing. Let’s hit play and find out what his band has to offer.

First up we have ‘Stereo’ and Pavement establish their sound pretty quickly. I can hear the substantial progeny (Ben Kweller leaps immediately to mind – I’ve been giving Weezer too much credit) in every sluggish syllable, hit-hat beat high in the mix and the quiet guitars in the verses/noisy guitars in the choruses formula. It’s all there. But this can lead to potential difficulties in retrospective listening (I think that’s an oxymoron). When you hear something so influential for the first time, it can easily sound tired and clichéd because of all the well-known copies that followed. Logically I know it’s not their fault but you can’t easily move on from it. Like when you walk on to a stationary escalator and stumble because you expect it to move. Anyway this is only track one, so too early to pass judgement. Next.

‘Shady Lane’ is a touch quieter and more melodic and less regular in structure. I guess it’s nice. It appeals without really grabbing me. ‘Transport is Arranged’ similarly moves away from where I thought this album was going based on the first song. It is during these quieter points in the album that I feel I need to be paying more attention to the lyrics like the ones you quoted in the intro. Instead I got distracted and wrote this sentence about not listening. And by this point, the song has moved into a heavier instrumental section anyway.

The first Spiral Stairs song, ‘Date with Ikea’ is next. I’ll be honest and say I’ve not done any research so no idea what Spiral Stairs means. But it sounds like a different vocalist. I like the intro though. Then it feels like we’re almost immediately into the refrain and the song’s over.

By now I would have expected the album to really get going. Nothing to massively dislike so far but as I’ve already said, nothing is really grabbing me. It’s fairly pedestrian (that’s a pavement joke which may not translate into American English). The next couple of songs pass me by.

Tracks 7 and 8, ‘Embassy Row’ and ‘Blue Hawaiian’ sound like the name of cocktails. But not ones you’d order. I’m starting to get the feeling that I’d appreciate these songs more if I saw the band live and that the BTT treatment isn’t doing this album any favours.

‘We Are Underused’ awakens me. For 27 seconds. For 27 it seconds sounded completely different to everything else on the album. And then it went into another slowish guitar song. A great crime of 90s guitar soloing is repeated here – the major pentatonic scale.

I’m on the next Spiral Stairs tune, ‘Passat Dream’. And, until the fade out (ok it was the 90s), I’m again liking this more than the rest of Pavement on this album. Maybe I do need to look up Spiral Stairs because that seems to resonate more with me. And on ‘Starlings on the Slipstream’, I’m reminded why. Another song that sounds the same. And you say this is Pavement at the height of their powers? The rest must be tedious as can be. ‘Fin’ ends the album with little ceremony but at least I know it’s nearly the end.

How to sum up Brighten the Corners without being cranky or, worse, iconoclastic? Let’s say it promised more than it delivered and to be honest I was quite bored from about half way. I can appreciate there is something there that appeals to you, but it just does not do it for me in the same way. Influential, sure. But they’re no Pixies.

Some trepidation back at you Rick for the return leg.

Words by James Spearing

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