Pavement @ Mississippi Nights
St. Louis, Missouri

You can't throw a cigarette butt without hitting a barn full of squinty-eyed critics who think they've told you all that you need to know about Pavement: 1) The band had impeccable indie cred built up through several years of perfectly imperfect releases. 2) 1992's “Perfect Sound Forever” influenced countless outcasts to aspire to off-key fits of basement recording. 3) The noise-pop nap-attack climaxed with 1994's “Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain.” 4) “Wowee Zowee,” in 1996, cast a damning shadow on the reputation the band had lazily built. End of story.

But not really. Pavement has steadily become more solid-state; and over the course of more than a dozen releases since 1989, Steven Malkmus, Scott Kannberg and the boys have progressed from throwing together purposefully offhanded in-jokes to crafting elliptical soidisant songs filled with sugary hooks and harmonies.

“Brighten the Corners,” the new album the band is touring behind, showcases Pavement's adulthood. But the bi-coastal band members aren't your typical grown-ups. So when percussionist Bob Nastanovich took the stage at Mississippi Nights last Sunday wearing a Minutemen T-shirt, everything felt just right.

Nastanovich probably has the best job in rock. He's the second percussionist in a reputable band, he gets to scream and dance on-stage whenever he feels like it and he can smoke as many cigarettes as his unhealthy heart desires while playing anything from tambourine to sampler.

Aside from ol' action Bob, though, Pavement was generally subdued while they played what seemed like every single song from the new CD. That wasn't a bad thing, but the band only threw in three songs from “Crooked Rain”: “Range Life” felt like the show's highlight as it turned into a group-hugging, sing-alonging, bleary-eyed smilefest. Malkmus stayed wryly silent during the notorious Smashing Pumpkins reference, probably because the Pumpkins are a sacred alterna-cow and the kids love ‘em.

Lyrically, Malkmus did hit a good one with “Shady Lane”: “You've been chosen as an extra in the movie adaptation of the sequel to your life.” Seemed like a perfect observation on the way geeks and critics have overanalyzed the words he sings.

Malkmus is a crafty lyricist but Kannberg proved his mettle with “Date w/ Ikea” and “Passat Dream.” The falsetto backing vocals and strained whines of “Passat” were so bubblegum-catchy that it made ya giddy like a kiddy.

It also felt good when the band turned up the juice during the fiery crunches of “Transport Is Arranged” and “Stereo.” The latter was more tongue-in-cheek self-referencing, but built like a smart-alecky hit single. “Hi-ho Silver, ride/Get off the air/I'm on the stereo/Baby baby baby baby baby/Gave me malaria, hysteria/And what about the voice of Geddy Lee/How did it get so high?/I wonder if he speaks like an ordinary guy/(I know him, and he does)/Well, you're my fact-checking cuz.” The hook was there, if not the linear thought.

Pavement definitely supplied the musical hooks for the nowhere-near-capacity crowd, but the overall performance was plain. It was the kind of show you just watched; sitting at a table looking over the head-bobbing crowd was good enough.

Openers Apples In Stereo might've been good enough tonight if the band wasn't opening for Pavement. Culling way too much inspiration from the headliners (including having two drummers), Apples In Stereo sounded amateurish and unrehearsed. There was some Big Star in the mix, and one song was phrased like a bizarre “South of the Border,” but the guitarist/singer was so wimpy that it seemed as if he had lost a coin toss so the rest of the band gave him vocal duties.

Pavement has an older song called “Shoot the Singer,” and though the headliners didn't play it, it sounded like a good way to put the opening act out of everyone's misery.

By The Billy Keaggy | Originally published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 1997i am