PAVEMENT Westing (By Musket And Sextant) (Big Cat)

Pavement are another of the seemingly inexhaustible wave of wonderful American indie bands that seems to be sweeping over the UK at the mo, and their specialist subject is Being Even Better At What The Fall Do Than The Fall: they play spiky yet hummable tunes, without any of Mark E Smith's bitter and twisted baggage getting in the way. "Westing" is a compilation of 23 single, E.P. and flexi-disc tracks released prior to their debut "Slanted And Enchanted", performing a valuable tidying up operation for new fans, and very, very good it is too.

Much of the album is on the discordant and jarring side - not for nowt does the back cover display the message "A Tortured Context" - in fact on a first listen I thought it was the strangest thing I'd clapped ears on since "Tr!"t Msk R$pl%c^", and this seems to have upset lovers of their debut album proper, who complain that they "don't like the fuzzy bits". Lightweights!

The first side kicks off with "You're Killing Me", a simple and appealing song, if a bit fuzzy (allegedly the distortion was introduced to disguise the fact that the guitar part had been copped directly off Sonic Youth's "Daydream Nation"), which is followed by "Box Elder", possibly the band's most famous song as it was covered by TheWeddingPresent in 1990. It's a coherent, enjoyable and familiar tale of love gone bad and one of the best songs I've ever heard, 'nuff said. Other delights include the clanging and banging that is "Price Yeah!", the hummable "Debris Slide", the art-school instrumentalism of "Krell-Vid User" and seemingly hundreds of others. I think the album betters their superb debut waxing, and, for me, establishes them, along with Mercury Rev and R.E.M, as one of the most important American bands around at the moment.

PAVEMENT Wowee Zowee (Big Cat)

In the space of five years, arch slackers Pavement have journeyed from the fuzzsaw guitar experiments of their early EPs to 1994’s incredible "Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain" album, a work of amazing maturity and lasting wonder that almost bridged the sizeable gap between The Fall and Donald Fagen. Barely a year later, here’s the follow up, the three-sided (wouldn’t that make it triangular?) "Wowee Zowee". Have they ladled on yet more Steely Dan sophistication? Are they soon to be Radio 2 playlist regulars?

Course not. "Wowee Zowee" heads back from the brink towards their debut album’s spiky, bash-it-out abandon, especially in short sharp shocks like "Serpentine Pad", the severely compressed Sonic Youthisms of "Flux = Rad" and the glam rock "Western Homes". Elements of "Crooked Rain..." remain, thankfully, like the exquisitely woozy opener "We Dance", which reads like The Eagles’ "Wasted Time" with a hangover: "Pick out some Brazilian nuts for your engagement/Check that expiration date man/It’s later than you think", the mysterious tales of vacationing doctors and contract bridge parties in saunas that constitute "Grounded", and the steel guitar that’s all over "Father To A Sister Of Thought".

For all its good points "Wowee Zowee" sounds a fractured and difficult work, requiring sustained listening and concentration even by Pavement standards. It’s also about half a dozen tunes too heavy, the six minutes of "Half A Canyon" being particularly obese. But even a half-good Pavement album has more quirky, thought-provoking turns of phrase and melody than most bands could hope to plagiarise in an entire career, so it’ll serve, but feel free to take two years over the next one.

PAVEMENT Brighten The Corners (Domino)

Despite Stephen Malkmus’ tentative friendship with one Dan Abnormal, the mighty Pavement’s fourth album proper doesn’t boast a friendly fun-pub knees-up kinda atmosphere, or truckloads of cheerful Cockernee rhyming slang (although ‘visa’ gets rhymed with ‘geezer’ at one point), or songs about the country or dogs. What it does have, however, are call-and-response routines such as the following:

S.M.:What about the voice of Geddy Lee? How did it get so high? I wonder if he speaks like an ordinary guy.

SECOND UNIDENTIFIED PAVEMENT MEMBER:I know him and he does

S.M.:Well you are my fact checking cuz.

It also boasts deceptively worked-upon epigrams by the Britload, a nice line in genuinely self-deprecating humor ("I trust you will tell me if I am making a fool of myself" hollers Malkmus, shortly before one of the most ham-fisted guitar solos in the history of the instrument) and insidiously poptastic tunes in the form of the singles "Stereo" and "Shady Lane". These are the ingredients of a fine album, for those who are taking notes.

On the other hand, about half of "Brighten The Corners" settles for the lazily uninvolving, bordering on stodgy option, perhaps not as blatantly overweight as its triple-sided predecessor "Wowie Zowee" was for much of its duration, but still spark-free enough to prevent enthusiastic recommendation to the curious newcomer. Added to which, nominal producer Mitch Easter smothers everything in the kind of rural whittled-from-wood fogginess that characterised his work on early R.E.M. albums, ensuring that any dynamics and excitement that may be desirable have to come from the songs themselves, some of which ("Old To Begin", "Type Slowly", "We Are Underused" and "Passat Dream" being the chief offenders to skip past on the listening post) are emphatically not among Pavement’s most fantastic. So I feel dutifully bound to point out that the most complete picture of what the band can achieve when they’re hot (well, awake at least) remains the wonderful, essential "Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain" album. But when you’ve played that to death, "Brighten The Corners" won’t do any harm at all.

PAVEMENT Terror Twilight (Domino)

Pavement's fifth album finds the arch slackers curdling even further towards some strange amalgam of spiked country and grunge, sort of like Gomez but without the tunes (or conversely too many tunes to count, each one lasting for seconds before being supplanted by something stranger). Much of "Terror Twilight" is reminiscent of the less well-remembered moments of 1997's "Brighten The Corners", littered with angular almost-melodies and fractured lyrical observations. There's some evidence of progress: "Platform Blues" lurches into exactly the sort of late-60s blues boom parody you might be expecting from its title, and Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood blows harp on a couple of tracks. The whole has been expertly captured by last year's flavour of the month producer Nigel Godrich, who, like this year's flavour of the month producer David Fridmann, has an uncanny knack of letting a band get on with the process of being themselves to the best of their ability…or at least has an uncanny knack of making records that sound like he has an uncanny knack of letting a band get on with the process of being themselves to the best of their ability.

What saves "Terror Twilight" is the last two tracks (just like "Brighten The Corners" was pushed back towards goodness by its divine opening salvo of "Stereo" and "Shady Lane"). "The Hexx" is a slowly uncoiling gem, the upside of the band's galloping maturity (as opposed to the downside, the sleepy AOR fog that hangs over much of the album - relatively speaking of course: even when sailing as close to normality as this Pavement make music that out-weirds at least 99% of what surrounds them in the charts. Nevertheless, I fear the scuzzy, fuzzed up Pavement of "Slanted & Enchanted" and "Westing (By Musket And Sextant)" would recognise very little of themselves in this album) evident in lyrics such as "Architecture students are like virgins with an itch they cannot scratch/Never build a building till you're fifty/What kind of life is that?" - what right have we to expect insight like that from a humble pop song?! Recent single "Carrot Rope" closes proceedings, and, aside from some dubious lyrics that are, how shall we say, open to interpretation, this is the one song here that will burrow itself into your brain. Whilst most of the eleven tracks on "Terror Twilight" positively discourage such behaviour, you could actually whistle "Carrot Rope" if you felt that way inclined.

Alright, I'll grudgingly admit to liking "Terror Twilight": it's certainly better than any scratchy no-fi album Blur have ever made under the influence of Steven Malkmus and his partners in absurdity. Even so, it’s hard to dispel the feeling that it's the work of a band who are coasting: something genuinely fabulous wouldn't go amiss next time round.

Stephen Malkmus

Preston School Of Industry

Silver Jews

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