Maybe it was the way in which Steve Malkmus’ voice kept threatening to disappear over the course of the evening.| Perhaps it was the fear exuded by a room packed with worshipful rock critics thinking that sooner or later someone in this band will wake up on the wrong side of the bed and decide to quit while they’re still ahead. Perhaps it was the point during “The Hexx” that a fan standing in back of the crowded room fell like timber to the floor. “I have no idea what happened,” the dazed man told his friends as they hoisted him onto his rubbery legs and whisked him to the bar area. Maybe he’d been hypnotized. Pavement, the most tuneful lo-fi band of the rock & roll era, was putting on a show to remember.
But while everyone would remember, not everyone would recall it fondly. Fans who came to savor the sheen of the Nigel Godrich-produced Terror Twilight were promptly let down. After opening with the relatively obscure “Frontwards” from their 1992 Watery Domestic EP, the band proceeded to run through nearly the entire new album (with the noteworthy exception of the single “Spit on a Stranger” and “…And Carrot Rope”) in their best Slanted and Enchanted guise. This was the rogue Pavement of old, ragged musicians led by a guy who could barely sing muddling their way through too-beautiful songs and wondering at the end of it all how they’d sounded so good. It was an intriguing occurrence, one that probably made a lot of fans wonder which band they liked better: the inscrutable murk-rockers or the mature pop craftsmen of the new millennium. Fortunately, there was plenty of evidence on both sides of the argument.
The more his voice broke, the deeper Malkmus reached into his bag of guitar tricks — and the more adventurous his band became. By the time they got to Wowee Zowee‘s “Father to a Sister of Thought” and Slanted‘s “Trigger Cut” at the midpoint of the set, Pavement seemed resigned to letting the songs spill out whatever way they could. Apologies had been made for the vocals as well as the bass, which had cut out momentarily. The music was controlling the band, and everyone seemed to know it. “This is gonna suck,” Malkmus declared before lighting into “Billie” from Terror Twilight, and he was pretty on target. Between Bob Nastanovich’s out-of-tune screaming of the refrain “General Washington” and the band’s shabby musicianship, the delightfully meandering tune became a perplexing mess. At other times, though, the band’s shabby aesthetic played right into its hand. New songs “Folk Jam,” with its ripping, Thurston Moore-channeling solo and classic math-rock ending, and “Major Leagues,” which sounded all the more ridiculous as Malkmus croaked his way through the chorus “bring on the major league” like a pubescent geek, packed an emotional punch that would’ve been lost in glossier translation.
Fittingly, the Slanted anthem “In the Mouth of a Desert” closed the set proper. The band ripped into the muscular song’s opening verse with an aggressive confidence that suggested no amount of studio wizardry could tame Pavement’s rambling poetic heart. From a thematic standpoint, the show could have ended a moment later, with Malkmus expressing his anger at the fact that his vocal cords had let him down. “I’m really pissed,” he declared. “I can’t sing, but I’m having a good time.” The singer had been victimized by the song, but he would accept it. Just like Pavement have probably grown to accept their improbable longevity.
But there was one more chapter tonight. After fifty-odd minutes of being buffeted by forces beyond their control, the defiant, in-control Pavement retook the stage. For the remainder of the show — a four-song encore run that included “Fight the Generation,” the heart-rending new ballad “Ann Don’t Cry,” near-hit “Range Life” and a blistering, cowbell-punctuated cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Sinister Purpose” — Malkmus and Co. put on their best gig face and plowed through like pros. It took making it look hard to make it look so easy.