IN THEIR PROGRESSION from arty four-trackers to the most interesting middle-class rock commodity since Steely Dan, Pavement have also somehow self-consciously mutated into the best pop group of the decade (Spice Girls aside). Drunk on the idea of fabricating and fucking with their own rock myth, these pretty boys have authored a cosmology on little more than their honky sex appeal, their lower than low industry in-jokes, and three or four of the best 50 guitar hooks of the century. Even if they're never gonna sell many more records than say, the Replacements, they've been convincing us that they're ready to be the next R.E.M. for more than five years now. Now that we know they never will be only makes their royal scam sweeter. We--the loyal indie rock legions--still want them, and they win again.
Brighten the Corners doesn't continue to unfold Pavement's commercial conceit so much as it ducks into the folds themselves. What's interesting about the album's queerest lyric, a line in "Stereo" about the voice of 362-year-old Rush frontman Getty Lee ("why does he sing so high? / I wonder if he talks like an ordinary guy"), isn't the line itself, but the unironic response: "I know him, and he does." Even cooler is Malkmus's delivery: He's rapping. Well, not rapping rapping. More like a nonchalant Beckian white-boy speak-spiel, as if he woke up one day mimicking "That's The Joint" instead of Silkworm, and decided he liked his voice better that way.
Soundwise, the band's post-Sonic Youth/ R.E.M. melodic platitudes have never been so understated, its streams of hide-and-seek guitar-poetry never so hard to hold on to. At times you almost lose them; it takes a very strong dose of Steve Malkmus's under-triumphant charisma to make the escapism in his sweetest hook line, "the worlds collide/but all that we want is a shady lane," seem not just characteristically arch, but urgent as well. Then you find yourself pulled into the lethargic but inescapable art-rock epic "We Are Underused," get nervous when you find yourself in the shower singing, "the liberals say they don't exist/but I know that they do," and suddenly Brighten the Corners' shady lane--at times familiar, often odd--starts seeming like an electric avenue.
So is this in-joke art-rock or funky neo-pop? You guessed it: neither and both. This brilliant edition might have seemed kind of standard issue in the recently expired epoch in which every white boy from here to Louisville with a B.A. in English and a day job at Kinko's could come up with slick, slack, smart guitar-rock with all the effort it takes to spend their parents' money on Neu reissues. But in the morning after the day the guitar died, Brighten the Corners sounds like ingenious ex post facto rock fan deliverance, coyly gasping for (and winning) recognition alongside (or is that against?) electronica's new day risen. After five records of indie variations, these pretty boys still sound pretty important. It's almost as if the ideal middle-class rock band is becoming a middle-class institution. I wonder if they can give us a balanced budget by the year 2000. I'm sure they think they deserve one.
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