Lies and betrayals, fruit-covered nails, electricity (Pavement at Brixton, 10 May 2010)

by Steve

Pavement on stageYesterday I covered Stockton’s finest pitcher. Today, it’s Stockton’s finest band, Pavement. Last night I saw the first of their four gigs at London’s Brixton Academy. I’d write a straight review, but that somehow doesn’t seem appropriate for a band that has offered such a skewed, distorted and fuzzy take on rock music. Plus, y’know, it’s just easier to spew out some sort of stream of conciousness. Readers, welcome to my brain on Pavement…

In terms of appreciating music, I was a bit of a precocious so-and-so. When I was twelve, way back in 1992, I was lent a battered cassette copy of Nirvana’s ‘Nevermind’. This was, I think, one of the truly pivotal moments in my life. Genuinely. By Christmas, I’d bought my first ever Melody Maker, was listening to the John Peel show, and starting to form my very own musical tastes. In many ways those bands of my formative years help shape my outlook on not just music, but literature, politics and general outlook on life.

I remember in my early Melody Maker-reading days there were several music press darlings. Some I still hold dear – Afghan Whigs, Tindersticks, Suede…and of course, Pavement.

Pavement were the lo-fi poster boys. This was DIY music, it sounded and looked attainable, with its limited production, throwaway performance, and handmade-styled packaging. Much like punk before it, here was music that screamed out ‘You can do this yourself!’

Naturally, that isn’t exactly the case. And I’m pleased to say that my mid-teenage efforts with two tape recorders and an out-of-tune acoustic guitar I couldn’t play, are long, long gone.

See, the real beauty with Pavement is that they made it all look so easy. Yet, countless bands that have followed in their wake showed that it is far from simple to create something that sounds so straightforward, yet so cryptic.

Ah…those cryptic lyrics. A rip off of The Fall? Maybe in initial inspiration, but Stephen Malkmus is a far more canny lyricist than that. He is also a far better singer than he lets on. I’m not usually one for ‘nonsense’ or overly obtuse words. But somehow Malkmus can convey so much emotion with words that on first reading don’t mean a whole lot.

It recalls something I read this past weekend from David Mitchell (the author, not the comedian) about discovering what words sit well together. Pavement’s lyrics are full of words that sit well together, which are then performed for maximum impact, chewing the syllables, stretching out the words, toying with the natural rhythm of sentences.

But what of the music? That’s simple, right? Well, if it is, how come so few bands have been capable of producing a similar body of work? Pavement’s early songs rely on simple chord changes, but still pack a huge punch. The start of ‘In the mouth a desert’ floors me every time, no more so than last night, hitting me right in the gut. Their later songs gained complexity, at times, but lost nothing. They could stretch out, such as on ‘Fight this generation’, or gain some itchy rhythmic peculiarities, on ‘Rattled by the rush’ or ‘Stop breathing’.

Then there is everything else. The best bands are far more than the tunes and the words. There is, in the best sense, the ‘pose’. How does a band position and present itself? Pavement were lumped in with the slacker generation, and to some extent played up to it. But they were/are also a whole lot more playful and arch. They could be shambolic, but seemingly knowing at the same time. They were not afraid of being goofy. They were also so incredibly cool, despite, or because of, being regular kind of guys.

They were not afraid of taking strange turns – lo-fi alt.rock to country inflections to punk to radio-friendly and all the way back again. And throughout sounding kind of familiar, kind of strange, but always disctinctly Pavement.

So what of the gig? Reader, it was magnificent. After waiting around 17-18 years, I finally saw them. They’d hardly aged at all, in appearance or performance. But they seem to have grown into themselves too. I mean, Bob Nastanovich, has always had something of the easy-going, responsible, middle-aged guy about him. Which made it even more wonderful when he tore through ‘Unfair’ and ‘Conduit for sale!’ his yell filling the hall.

Two hours, a proper show, yet also so very Pavement-like. I loved that even at this stage, over twenty years after they formed, post-reunion, they were still annoying audience members. Bizarrely some people had paid £25 to see Pavement and were angry that they were noisy and weren’t showing enough ‘musicianship’ for their liking. I don’t think they really understood what they were letting themselves in for, did they? I could moan about idiot London audiences all day, but now is not the time. I’ll leave them at the bar, talking over the music.

Last night made the duality of Pavement crystal clear. First, they play pop music. A very strange pop music, admittedly, but pop all the same. Their songs are full of hooks and singalongs and split-second moments that take the breath away. They gave me a smile a mile wide.

They also rock. They were incredibly powerful and visceral at times. And my ears were certainly ringing afterwards.

I’m so pleased that I got to see them, and I’m so pleased that are still so very, very good. I hope they stick together a little while longer. They looked like they were having fun, and I certainly was. Thanks guys. It was worth the wait. My teenage self would have loved it.

Image by me, hence it not being very good…