"I am working!" The Silver Jews' David Berman
Michael Schmelling

The Silver Jews
Tanglewood Numbers
Drag City

James Carter/
Cyrus Chestnut/
Ali Jackson/Reginald Veal

Gold Sounds
Brown Brothers

Stephen Malkmus
Face the Truth

What if the essential truths of the human condition really are as simple as three million Mitch Albom readers believe? Well, for starters, art as we know it sure is fucked. The quest to illuminate neglected crannies of interpretation would be debunked as a sheisty means to obscure the obvious. That Abercrombie dude in your freshman lit class who accused your professor of ferreting out "hidden meanings"? Vindicated. And history would be rewritten by the nitwits who dismissed Pavement as slipshod collegiate snobs.

Even fans are often suspicious of Stephen Malkmus and his crew. "You never really knew where Pavement stood on anything," wrote Pitchfork's Mark Richardson last year in a perceptive review of Matador's two-disc Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain reissue. But, really, we had our suspicions: Melodies loitered in the spaces guitar atonalities neglected to shade in, and Malkmus littered countless implications in the gaps between literal lyrical sense and his WASPish end run around vocal affect. If ever musicians sidled crabwise toward meaning, these elliptical souls were they. But what fate faces purposeful indirection in an age of bunkered sensibilities, where both the Allied Vice-Gawker snark contingent and the Axis of Emo claim they're the final bulwark against the other's excesses? Fittingly enough, three recent Pavement-related discs stylishly refuse to answer that question.

We might suspect that when Stephen Malkmus calls an album Face the Truth he is, as we used to say in the '90s, "being ironic." Which is never the same as being sarcastic, but simply acknowledges that the closer you come to saying exactly what you feel, the less likely you are to say exactly what you mean. Still, note the past tense when he tells himself, "Somehow you managed to elucidate something that was on all of their minds," on "Pencil Rot." The pleasures of Face the Truth--both its language tangles and proggy guitar curlicues--are small and private. Malkmus played just about everything here, and as a one-man muddle of talent and craft who excels at simulating meanings he refuses to confirm, he certainly shows up a contented hobbyist like McCartney. At times, though, it's like watching someone complete a crossword puzzle without being allowed to suggest answers.

David Berman's talents, fortunately, are too modest for him to go it alone. The Silver Jews' Tanglewood Numbers is an old-time indie rock hootenanny whose gaggle of noteworthies includes Malkmus and fellow Pavementeer Bob Nastovich, with whom Berman formed the Silver Jews in 1989. A familiar instrumental overemphasis on the third beat of the 4/4 lends "Farmer's Motel," the sole Malkmus co-credit here, a Pavement-like stagger. Yet most of this disc's guitar work, not all of it Malkmus's, is understated, jangling just out of tune or hovering near a forthright melody. And though, like his sometime mate, Berman often pins down allusive lyrics through vocal emphasis, requests like "Baby woncha take this magnet and put my picture back on your fridge," from "I'm Getting Back into Getting Back into You" are pretty concrete already. This is indie obliqueness as ingrained routine, a daily off-center practice rather than a restless pilgrimage.

Herculean saxman James Carter and wily pianist Cyrus Chestnut are more matter-of-fact yet. But they don't simply jazzify the eight Pavement tunes on Gold Sounds--they locate the wobbling relationship to atonality at the core of each song. Carter loosely rolls the verse of "Stereo" around the bell of his horn like a marble, then spits out the chorus staccato. Chestnut rags the intro of "Trigger Cut" into Monk manqué, then glides through verse and chorus, scattering blue notes in his wake. And when drummer Ali Jackson smacks Carter to improvisatory heights on "My First Mine" or Reginald Veal's galloping bass is buffeted on either side by Carter's percussive pops and Jackson's tambourine on "Summer Babe," there's a sense of play Malkmus is too uptight and Berman too casual to fully indulge. It's a reminder that there are still plenty of ways to brighten the corners Pavement eventually painted themselves into--and that simple truths are just boring.

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