Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks
w/the Swords Project

Graceland, 381-3094, Fri Mar 9.

Stephen Malkmus
Stephen Malkmus

Sometime in 1989, I saw an early lineup of Pavement through deep, blurring layers of malt liquor in a frat house basement in Charlottesville, Virginia. What little I remember of the evening had a sense of ecstatic possibility about it. Percussionist Bob Nastanovich had a late-night radio show on WTJU at the time, which was like an initiation into the continent of wonders that was then called punk (upon which frontman Stephen Malkmus and future Silver Jews cohort David Berman appeared frequently). When Pavement left, the town died.

In 1991, the band returned, accompanied by a wild character in a seersucker suit (Dan Koretzky, who had just started Drag City and released the EP Perfect Sound Forever on his inheritance), as well as a veteran of the '70s psychic wars on the drums (Gary Young, who spent much of the stage time running around in a drunken stupor). Fifty of us danced wildly to what was, we believed, the greatest band in the country at that ultimate moment of our indie secrecy. Nobody, we thought, would ever know Pavement but us. Of course what happened next was going on at the same time back home in Seattle: It was like walking outside in the morning and seeing your dreams printed on a billboard. Slanted and Enchanted (1992) in retrospect, as well as the second EP that followed, seems to have revolutionized pop music. However, Pavement's most profound achievement, in my opinion, was Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain (1994), a majestic, dreamily referential masterpiece with a great, catchy single that put the band on MTV.

Pavement's tragic limitation on stage and record, it has been said, was the band's refusal to let itself be loved. There was a time when Pavement could almost have had the hearts of a generation. Terminally cautious, the band would of course have questioned the validity of that kind of emotional contract, but an incomplete communion is better than none at all. (Nothing on Malkmus' solo record changes that, but, freed from the burden of a history-making band, he does admit some light and air.) Pavement's throwaway, three-side opus, Wowee Zowee (1995), had a left-handed manifesto in its liner notes that seemed to plead for the seriousness of the project: "I hope for an ahistorical moment, hence the garbled dizzy tone," Malkmus writes, justifying his elliptical lyrics. That record was effortlessly brilliant, bloated, serious, and fun--and it drained the tank for Pavement.

Terror Twilight (1999), the band's coda, was a solo record in virtually all but name. Its mid-tempo deadness seems to continue on the first song of Stephen Malkmus. "The black book you took was per-ma-nent-a-ly diversified" he drawls--uh, what? But he immediately shifts into the kind of sparkling whimsy that informed Pavement's classic first singles. The elegiac tone of Crooked Rain returns for "Church on White," a nearly choked tribute to a dead friend. At early middle age, Malkmus conjures up antique boy-book adventures he might have lived: a pirate, a curate in the Raj, a beach bum on the Aegean. And with the final handful of songs, beginning with the gorgeous "Trojan Curfew," he resurrects the classic rock-haunted grandeur of Pavement's best, meditative work. If the record has a single, it is "Jenny and the Ess-Dog," the pleasurable, slight mockery of a hippie couple with their dog's thoughts for the chorus: "Get me out of here! Get me out of here!" On "Vague Space," Malkmus' epic mode gives his jadedly romantic lines a rare, naked sincerity. "I came to crave your spastic touch," he croons forthrightly. The record ends with a dreamy echo of unreserved yearning: "Jen, you took me far into the long line/Divine, divine, divine, divine."

Frankly, I came to this record's off-putting surface (its title and face-shot cover), my copies of the two last Pavement records in the used bin, expecting to hate it. Anyone else who has given up on the Slacker King may also be pleasantly surprised. At this point Malkmus looks ready at the least to cut a career path like that of Vic Chesnutt, a witty miniaturist who makes a lot of excellent if uncanonical records (which are on occasion supremely moving), to reach a more intimate audience than in the past, with, like Bob Mould or Frank Black, a notch or two behind him in the all-time Top 100. This is a far more respectable station in which to pass one's fourth decade than at the helm of a once-great band that refuses to die.