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SUMMER SHARE

Remember the good ol’ days, those postcollegiate summers of listening to Pavement’s Wowee Zowee on repeat and knocking commercial releases for all sounding the same? Well, if the ’90s are back, then perhaps they’ve been inverted, because while the year’s biggest releases—records like Nicki Minaj’s Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded and Usher’s Looking 4 Myself—carry on the tradition of Wowee’s anything-goes schizophrenia, Beach House’s new Bloom seems to consist of 10 variations on the same song. But ah, what a song it is—a dewy mid-tempo number that sets hearts mourning. On a July Saturday, you could do a lot worse than attending their show at Central Park with Lower Dens.

Mon., July 23, 5 p.m., 2012

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Stephen Malkmus

If you scored tickets to see Pavement at, say, Coachella last year, you got the chance to hear frontman Stephen Malkmus sing in front of thousands of people. Now, before heading off on a world tour with his other band, the Jicks, the voice of a Pitchfork-reading generation is playing two acoustic shows at local record stores, giving you the chance to hear him sing in front of no more than fifty. Just get there early, because the line for these could easily reach back into quadruple digits.

Thu., Aug. 25, 6 p.m., 2011

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Stephen Malkmus

If you scored tickets to see Pavement at, say, Coachella last year, you got the chance to hear frontman Stephen Malkmus sing in front of thousands of people. Now, before heading off on a world tour with his other band, the Jicks, the voice of a Pitchfork-reading generation is playing two acoustic shows at local record stores, giving you the chance to hear him sing in front of no more than fifty. Just get there early, because the line for these could easily reach back into quadruple digits.

Thu., Aug. 25, 9 p.m., 2011

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Autumn Sonata

Silver Jews’ 1994 debut, Starlight Walker, was David Berman’s shambling best—photographed between Pavement’s Steve Malkmus and Bob Nastanovich in an earth-toned forest, he advised graduates famously. In retrospect, four of five SJ full-lengths share October release dates, so the first record’s harvest revel was presciently apt. Post–drug addiction and Bright Flight, 2001’s anomalous November post, the head Jew’s back into October mode with Tanglewood Numbers. The Pavement alumni guest, too, but Malkmus offers zero vocals; instead, Berman’s wife, Cassie Marrett, plays sidekick. She does a fine job, though SM’s harmonizing is missed on “Sleeping Is the Only Love”—he contributes crooked-rain guitar; add his off-kiltering singsong and the track would soar.

Other cooks include Will Oldham, ex–Jesus Lizard Duane Denison, and various Chicagoans: Bigger production plus rock hooking equals emphasis on the Nashvillian’s bari-tonal textures rather than verbal junk shop. Lovely Americana tableaux still bubble up repeatedly, especially amid the sunset’s warm glare of “I’m Getting Back Into You” ‘s ham-radio squiggles.

For forced social relevance, mash Berman’s bonged “K-Hole” and its young black Santa Claus character, Andre, with the skeletal ketamine tune of the same name by CocoRosie, one half of which sisterly duo has been blogospherically dissed as of late for comments she made at one of those Caucasian-heavy “Kill Whitie” hipster-hop parties. Fun.

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Put It All Down

“I thought that if I could put it all down, that would be one way,” the poet John Ashbery wrote in 1972. “And next the thought came to me that to leave all out would be another, and truer, way.” For 10 years, from 1989 to 1999, Pavement made music that lived in this gap of poetic indeterminacy—the gap, as Lou Reed put it, between thought and expression. They were the most consistent band of the ’90s, transmuting the noise and chaos of scenemakers like Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr. into glamour and melody, and restoring lyrical romanticism to an indie-rock world that had learned to feed on its own disillusionment. Few bands were funnier, or better, at describing their own sound in song, always better than the critics they loved to hoodwink: “electricity and lust,” “tricks are everything,” “style for miles and miles/so much style that it’s wasted,” “Can you treat it like an oil well/When it’s underground, out of sight?” “a special new band.”

In 2002, Matador expanded Pavement’s debut album, Slanted & Enchanted, into a double CD encompassing the Watery Domestic EP, B-sides, one-offs, Peel sessions, and a widely bootlegged live show. At this point in their development they could do no wrong, and having this material together in one place only makes that clearer. The music—the title goes a long way toward describing the sound—takes shape around singer-guitarist Steven Malkmus, much of it in overdubs that allowed for what partner Scott Kannberg calls “happy accidents.” Malkmus seems to be finding his way through these songs for the first time, using his voice and guitar to navigate. Almost 13 years later, the sense of discovery, of exploration, remains overwhelming.

Now comes a similar reissue of 1994’s Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain that includes a disc of material that has never even been bootlegged. It’s less compelling, but still fascinating. By this time, the music was no longer taking shape around Malkmus; now Malkmus was calling it forth, directing it, dictating the form. Pavement is in transition here—CRCR is a California album recorded on 32nd Street and Ninth Avenue in Manhattan. These songs are products of skill, not accident, and the previously unreleased tracks document a band learning how to turn one into the other. Eight come from aborted sessions at original drummer Gary Young’s studio in Stockton, California. Young was drinking so much they could only work in the morning, and it shows—the sound is a little bleary-eyed. Most of the vocals seem to be scratch takes where Malkmus has yet to find either melody or lyric.

Still, as the sessions continue in New York with a new drummer, you can hear how he used his habit of making lyrics up at the mic to map his unconscious, and how much power the music draws from just that. The sloppy off-the-cuff jokes (“I never had any children. . . . Maybe I’d like to fuck a woman and make one/But I don’t know if I should because I don’t have a real steady job”) make it plain that his great subject was a longing for love and domesticity at war with the bohemian pull of poetry, art, and rock & roll. So much for his much-bruited lyrical opacity. And though only a few of the bonus tracks are must-hears, including “Fucking Righteous,” a jam as in-the-red as the Velvet Underground’s “European Son” or “Sister Ray,” pleasures and surprises abound. It’s the sound of a great band gaining ambition, confidence, ability. Soon Pavement will take some of these first-draft songs on the road, and eventually they’ll recut them for their masterpiece, Wowee Zowee.

Put it all down or leave it all out. Malkmus—an Ashbery fan—knew there was no hope of truly doing either. So he went for songs that attempted both at once. In the gap this created, music and listeners could talk to each other, define each other. They still can.

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The Cultural History of Pavement (Hello, Mamaraneck!)

Dressed for success that never comes, with so much style that it’s wasted, Pavement provided their own ambivalent cris de coeur across half a dozen albums and countless however-many-inch whatsits that neatly traversed the ’90s. First materializing under the masks SM and Spiral Stairs, with production/drums by dipsomaniacal Gary Young, Pavement painted over paint, playfully milking a denial of signature for maximum mystery. Their songs uncorked flexible noise, narrative whimsy, and a winning way with metapop—namedropkicking the Smashing Pumpkins, annotating R.E.M.’s Reckoning, and we’re coming to the chorus now—and topped it off with titles seemingly arrived at by some combination of private joke, back-formation, and sortes vergilianae.

If only Rob Jovanovic had gotten into the inscrutable spirit of things; as it is, adherents will devour and be annoyed by Perfect Sound Forever, his good-natured if workmanlike band bio. The U.K.-based author provides some details, misspells New York town names (“Mamaraneck”), and should be prevented from term-paper constructions such as: “It’s been said that the past is a foreign place and that they do things differently there. This is perhaps never more apparent than when looking back at the U.S. music scene at the beginning of the 1990s.”

PSF is most fun as it charts Pavement’s casual formation and early, covert success, Stephen Malkmus and Scott Kannberg’s art-rock conceits bouncing off Young’s wild-man antics. After Young quits, the story loses its most colorful character, and the geographically diffuse, affable personnel (“I was perfectly auxiliary,” says Bob Nastanovich) can be hard to keep track of as they accommodate the charismatic-enigmatic Malkmus—who by the Terror Twilight tour is calling himself “the little bitch” and putting his coat over his head. The end comes, unclearly—as Nastanovich remarks of the final show: “There was no time to feel sad.”

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Sex Pleas That Swing

Stephen Malkmus does not have a beard. Got it? Malkmus = beardless. And yet the key to Pig Lib‘s deft and complicated beauty is that it’s one mighty hirsute album, progressive-like-the-genre guitar glossolalia updating a rock and roll era its author said good night to in his mid-twenties. On 2001’s lovely Stephen Malkmus, Pavement’s main man pilfered from the druggy British folk-rock he was obsessed with, but that was peach fuzz compared to Pig Lib‘s geezer-growth of aural scruff.

I mean, the album doesn’t fall headfirst into Kraut-psych drum circles or anything, but Malkmus’s developing pastoral fixation has him embracing megastructures almost unthinkable from the man who wrote “Debris Slide.” Take the opener, “Water and a Seat,” jarring to anyone who misses the bubblegum that once stuck to Pavement. After a careful, intricate intro, the song’s rhythmic weight shifts from foot to foot, speeding up and slowing down in oblique prog style: “Hello Hellohello HELLOhello,” he squeaks. And “Witch Mountain Bridge”‘s hypnotic rambles are pure mountain jam. Drummer John Moen and bassist Johanna Bolme wield a tensile strength that lets the lovesick riff-wanker muse and pine in safety; he falls off the bridge, they pull him back on. Take “1% of One,” nearly 10 minutes of reflexive meander meditating on a tech mixing a band that sounds “a bit like the Zephyr/and a bit like the Jicks.”

About the lovesick part: Like his long-acknowledged inspiration Phil Lynott—the scrawny power-trio Celt-core of Thin Lizzy’s first three albums seem firmly imprinted on Pig Lib—Malkmus knows soft rock is where the heart is, and the Jicks lock onto relationship ballads with a smooth clarity Pavement never matched. In true post-irony style, Malkmus saves the suave hooks for the heartfelt tales. On “Vanessa From Queens,” he sells breezy luxuria, finding romance in the details (“And the water dripping from the faucet/like Mardi Gras on the 12th of June”) while unbuttoning chords, massaging licks, and shamelessly mumbling, “I’m gonna show you the time of your life.” The chirpy, mellow “Craw Song” mourns a romantic triangle that can’t survive because one member won’t contemplate “switchin’ his hittin’/ from ladies to men.” “Ramp of Death” ‘s relaxed shuffle sees a Proustian moment in a grapefruit rind. Every tale’s aim is true, a catalog of amorous possibility and WASPish discontent. Even the album’s obtuse moves never seem cultish—Malkmus never loses the plot. This is beard-rock you can kiss without getting your faced scratched.

Which is of course Malkmus’s neatest trick. The man has an uncanny ability to transliterate the sounds only record collectors can hear—early Thin Lizzy, for instance —into a passionate ache anyone can love. He sure did it in Pavement, dressing in Fall colors, finding New Zealand on the edges of Swell Maps, and slipping on Alex Chilton’s puke-stained boogie shoes to orchestrate a college-radio collage that soon proved a distinctive sound ripe for montage by future wankers. A few years back Saint Stephen claimed in Tower Pulse that his favorite albums were the Groundhogs’ Thank Christ for the Bomb and the Dead C.’s Harsh 70s Reality. Well, fine, but it all came out sounding like Can’t Buy a Thrill.

So how did we get from “I’ve got style/ miles and miles” to Jameson’s in the jar-o? Malkmus’s albums follow an odd-even pattern: The odd ones—Slanted and Enchanted, Wowee Zowee, Terror Twilight—are breakthroughs, great leaps forward that show off new skills (Perfecting Indie Rock, Double Album With Filler, and Surviving Nigel Goodrich, respectively). Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, Brighten the Corners, and Stephen Malkmus, all released near Valentine’s Day of their respective years, form a trilogy of sorts (Portraits of the Artist as an Aging Tusk Fan). All are open, engaging, tuneful, finding bliss in melodic enthusiasms that tamp down Malkmus’s arch removal and expose his weakness for up-front beauty, moving from innocence (“Range Life”) to experience (“Stereo”) to maturity (“Trojan Curfew”). Pig Lib is an odd, a total Wowee Zowee move, parking what-the-fuck ideas next to expansive ballads and nonsense-with-hooks—as in “(Do Not Feed the) Oysters,” a lovely riff but dippy to spare, or “Dark Wave” ‘s new wave.

Deep listening is suggested because (a) it hangs together nicely, and (b) he buries the leads. Or buries the next acquisition in Malkmus’s skill set—Sex Pleas That Swing—the way he buried his first immortal ballad, “Here,” smack in the middle of Slanted and Enchanted. “Animal Midnight” packs a novel of manners into five minutes—a tense riff speaks to a love stuck in second gear: “Sacrifice for you is just flirtation/Friendship a cold convenience” at the start, and he just gets more upset. “Every single night I try to make you come alive/and you shove it right back in my face.” But check out how the bliss kicks in at 4:01, when a soaring solo and keyboard wash break open the sky.

The album closes with “Us,” as immediate as anything Malkmus has ever done, pairing a pleading come-on with honest-to-Pete groove, something the perennially under-rehearsed Pavement would have found impossible. “I wish we could get our act together/ make some sense of present tense all right,” he croons—simple, direct, economical, adult. “I don’t really know your taste in ceilings/I dunno the RPMs you rev.” This is how Pig Lib finds hearts and minds. It couches romantic discovery in smart songs that have outgrown wiseacre chatter. It extrudes guitar goop that parses emotional verities into whimsies both complex and carnal. It hops over misty mountains to shake for you, girl.

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Half a Life . . .

. . . Or maybe it’s “half alive,” or “half a line,” or “half a lie.” It can be hard to tell what Stephen Malkmus is talking about.

It’s not just the low-fidelity mumbling. I’ve often found Pavement lyrics incommunicative, in a way that conveys neither the dazzlingly mercurial consciousness of Malkmus’s (and my) favorite poet, John Ashbery, nor abstract expressionism’s intensities of emotion. Tone of voice tries to maneuver me in the right direction, except SM’s directions are wryly laconic, showily ironic, and ironically laconic with a dash of comic hysteria, mostly in the haircutting song. He’s about as guilty as the next indie boy of Dear Everyone I don’t give a fuck if you understand because I’m just like this, PS Please love me, PPS No actually bug off.

Moreover, Pavement’s finest melodic moment, in “Trigger Cut,” was composed by Jim Croce, and unless you are a hip-hop band, this is a sign of real limitation.

So there’s Pavement’s publicist-proclaimed “musical braintrust,” working within visible triangular horizons of meaning, feeling, and melody. I could spend the rest of my life trying to understand why he’s become a generational voice for a landslide of friends and acquaintances, poets, musicians, lawyers, music critics. But that would be cultural criticism; this is the reviews section.

Stephen Malkmus (he claims that, Little Stevie and the Disciples being taken, he wanted to go with band name the Jicks, but the label wouldn’t let him, which sounds only vaguely like the Matador I know and love. Besides, why not call yourselves the Jicks and then title the record Stephen Malkmus? Wouldn’t that be just so clever?) sounds a lot like Pavement, except with the guitars in tune and a sketchier rhythm section.

It’s also a swell record: personal but easy-going, distinctive, with a lot of picaresque personal narratives occasionally conveyed through exaggerated fantasy elements. That is, it has all the virtues of a really fine Too Short record.

And like a Too Short record, the good songs are similar to the less-good songs (this quality, which sounds suspiciously like “sameness,” actually turns out to be the chief factor in creating “listenability” on full-length CDs). The only clinker is an annoying song about Yul Brynner.

But there are three terrific songs: “Church on White,” “The Hook,” and the ridiculously charming “Jennifer and the Ess-Dog,” which I hoped would actually be about Too Short and Jennifa-oh-Jenny, but is instead the freaky tale of a toe-ringed deb and a burnt cover-bander named Sean: “She’s 18 he’s 31, she’s a rich girl he’s the son [awkward caesura to let rhyme sink in, because these two lovers make an awkward rhyme anyway] of a Coca-Cola middleman.” What’s this, Social Realism? Go figure. And, SocRealist-style, the sweethearts can’t quite hold it together when she goes off to college; it’s the distance thing, their heading in different directions, plus neither cares for Dire Straits, a mutual love of which might have saved them. Then the end: “And off came those awful toe rings, off came those awful toe rings.” There is no moral.

Amid pop music’s occasionally not-that-cynical Fight the Power or Girl Power or Power to the People Right On, indie for the most part holds to the communitarian virtue of not dividing performer and audience into preacher and flock. There are ethics (community, aesthetic autonomy, anti-glamour, dancing poorly) but not much moralizing: I can glean some personal positions from, say, Exile in Guyville‘s tell-it-like-it-is verve, but the welter of pointed idiosyncrasy makes it clear it’s just Liz’s story. She’s not saying you should fuck and run or anything.

The same willful inwardness drives Stephen Malkmus, albeit with less blue bravado and more Turkish pirates. “The Hook” takes a muted retro-riff worthy of the Ess-Dog’s cover band (is that “Just One Look”? Whatever, man), except in this case the shaggy dogs are salty dogs. It’s good ol’ story-rapping: “At 19 I was . . . , by 25 I was . . . , by 31 . . . , etc.” Kidnapped by Mediterranean thugs, he ascends from mascot to brother in arms (“My art was the knife”) to galleon captain, terrorizing the coast of Montenegro.

Hello? Coming-of-age story? For those of you scoring at home, Stephen’s 19 was the Hüsker-Düriffic 1985, a pivotal year for indie rock; at 25 he joined the gang with Slanted and Enchanted; at 31 he made Brighten the Corners, an apex at least in the technical sense—from there, it was decline and fall. One can only imagine the terror caused by “Starlings of the Slipstream” along the coast of Montenegro. But if “The Hook” is a kind of romanticized memoir, half a lie and half a life, it ends stripped of decoration: “We had no wooden legs or steel hooks, we had no black eyepatches or a starving cook. We were just killers with the cold eyes of a sailor.” Then he repeats the last line and gets out. As you might have guessed, there is no moral.

Rock moralizing tends to settle its fat ass in the chorus: the moment of asserting power, of making big points and giving marching orders. C’mon people now, smile on your brother! I was . . . Born in the USA! If you wannabe my lover, you’ve gotta get with my friends!

Indie, uncoincidentally, acts like choruses might have rabies or herpes or cooties. The songs, instead of returning to the same soapbox every 45 seconds, would rather amble from Alaska to Japan to Sarasota, as Malkmus does along the spongy and sweet melodic route of “Phantasies.” In indie utopia, a good distance from the big rock chorus mountain, across the river from boogie wonderland, everyone would be walking around bemused and bespectacled, and there would be no will-to-power rangers.

A form of this fantasy makes plenty o’ indie mediocre: apathy disguised as a social program. Other times it takes the form of the infuriatingly absurd: the Affect of No Affect, wherein some Lou Barlow type acts like songs aren’t stylized performances at all, he just happens to be singing right now and hey, that guitar fell into his hands by accident. But sometimes, the whole deal seems legitimately humble.

Humility goeth before some funny history. Handed rock’s center stage by Kurt’s death and Guyville‘s breakthrough (her producer Brad Wood: “There’s no chicks in Pavement. That had a lot to do with it”), indie stumbled out of the spotlight like a librarian leaving a frat party. It was the strange spectacle of young ironists meeting an irony 20 times their size—Pavement had the strange timing to be poster children for a movement that didn’t want everything, and got it. Suddenly they couldn’t win for winning.

The appeal of Stephen Malkmus is how eloquently, in the midst of other stories, it sings the ambivalence of moments lost, failed, evaded. “Church on White,” an elegy for a friend, offers also an unresolved account of indie itself. Extremely pretty, ambitiously sentimental, and with a stumbling chorus to boot, it bears the terrors of the living. “Promise me you will always be too awake to be famous, too wired to be safe,” he asks.

It’s a hopeless request to make of a dead man, but of course it glints also with the mirror flash of self-reflection. Elegies are the saddest form of talking to yourself. “Carry on, it’s a marathon, take me off the list, I don’t want to be missed.” The gap between what it means to be the self-negating sort in life, and to have literally negated yourself, yawns here; here fatality enters. The chorus begins “All you really wanted was everything plus everything.” How Not Indie. And rather than renouncing that position, Malkmus apologizes for his own reticence: “And the truth I only poured you half a lie.” Or something.

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Pavement Comes Alive

When their last album, Brighten the Corners, came out, I not only started to like Pavement, I came to love them. Live for them. Maybe it was the awful, eternal pull of the last song on the record, “Fin,” which provided the perfect soundtrack for my dad’s death. Or maybe it was the LP’s first song and single, “Stereo,” which rattled me with its reference to Rush’s Geddy Lee. But probably it was the whole thing: the powdered-wig(ged) harpsichordlike intro to “We Are Underused,” the Secret Service cloak-and-dagger attack of “Embassy Row,” the . . . Christ, I can’t even remember. I just know that this highbrow lo-fi outfit, who’d always left me cold, now had me all hot and bothered. That the lyrics were actually printed— a bourgeois conceit they’ve carefully avoided ‘fore and since— sealed the deal by making it easy for me to wade into the weird wordplay of Stephen Malkmus (though I’m not sure if two strong songs with brand-name titles, “Date With Ikea” and “Passat Dream,” weren’t written by Scott Kannberg, who sang them).

Either way, it also helped that I saw them live in San Francisco, on a Sunday night, late, at one of those unannounced pre-tour intimate shows, where they played to a couple hundred cultists. I didn’t have a ticket; they just let me in after two songs— literally the last dude in the door. And it was magical. Malkmus wore a burgundy scarf, and standing up there, his body cocked at an angle, told us to “leave the angles for the shills.” Backstage afterward he sipped Clausthaler and worked a New York Times crossword. And kept the scarf on. Not that I was backstage myself, but the 16yearold kids I went with sneaked back there and, using my disposable camera, mugged with Malkmus for a now-you’re-stalking snapshot. I slept in my car rather than make the two-hour drive home, and my mom got pissed. My dad, who at that time looked like he might still make it, just shook his head.

Last Wednesday at Irving Plaza, then, was a special moment for me, because it was the first time I’d seen Pavement since. And unfortunately but understandably, it wasn’t the same. Don’t get me wrong. The show was great, so to speak, as is the new long-player, Terror Twilight. But seeing them in a bigger place, with 1000 other people, when they’d just flown in BOAC and appeared to be combating butterflies with beverages . . . something was missing. Namely Malkmus’s scarf (though he did seem to be wearing some kind of ascot). He made a great show of clearing his throat, and gave his chest a hypochondriac patting during the show’s opening tune, one I wouldn’t know, because, as I say, I only got into them on their last record.

Scarf or no scarf, it was still a thrill to see them perform the new material. I’m a hippie who spent way too much time as a kid asking myself, “What about the voice of Geddy Lee, how did it get so high?” As a result, I tend to be way too forgiving toward groups who try to grow, or as we used to say, “progress.” Ergo, for me, the new Pavement record is necessarily better than the last one. The first single, “Spit on a Stranger” (nice title; elsewhere Malkmus remarks that “You’re a nice guy/And I hate you for that”), has a Beatlesy feel— which is a pretty weak description, but how else to characterize Malkmus’s vocals when he sings flat-out rather than flatly? “Folk Jam,” meanwhile, approaches the bounce of Bringing It All Back Home Dylan or Pavement’s central-Cali forefathers, Creedence, with lyrics that don’t try to be woodsy or rootsy but actually deal with folk— i.e., the harsh realities of “family trees.” And “Ann Don’t Cry” makes me do just that (I even bawled when they played it live— how creepy!) Maybe because my mom’s name is Ann.

At any rate, the bulk of the concert devoted itself to new material— much like the last time I saw them— and while that meant no string of surefire crowd pleasers (no “Range Life” or “Haircut”), it also meant Pavement have guts. They even have chops, as evidenced by their pulling off the new joint’s more rockin’ “blues” and hard-rock tracks. “Platform Blues,” which on disc sounds as if it’s played backward, beginning with the end of a sleazy Skynyrd/ Groundhogs groove, came off onstage as if it were played forward. And although the jazzy tripartite mini-epic “See, Speak, Remember” was a fiasco and had to be cut short (“Thanks for cheering after that,” Malkmus demurs), the two most bitchen jams— the dangerously grungy “Cream of Gold” and glam-goth goof “Billie”— came off with few enough hitches to allay any suspicions that Terror Twilight‘s art-rock arrangements are smoke and mirrors supplied by producer Nigel Godrich.

Of course the OG Pavement never needed a coproducer, never rocked in unashamedly rockist ways, and still occasionally makes a cameo, as on the elegantly dinky ditty “Major Leagues,” which musically continues the riff of “Range Life” and lyrically laments the ultimate “relationship” with that Great White Whore, the record biz (“you kiss like a rock but you know I need it anyway”). “Bring on the major leagues,” Malkmus sings, again flat-out and not flat. And even though it’s an empty challenge— he had his chance to be called up from Triple A ball around the time of the even-more-scattered-and-flaky-than-usual Wowee Zowee and deliberately blew it— for some reason you believe he’s sincere. Better late than never.

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Getting Real

Elizabeth Peyton is still in love. But it’s a different kind of love, and she wants you to know it. This is the subject, and the subtext, of her fourth solo show, which is more disjointed than previous exhibitions. Mingled among Peyton’s jewel-colored, lighter-than-air, idealizing portraits are nearly two dozen photographs of the people from her world—her friends, fellow artists, and art dealers. This tactic doesn’t totally work to Peyton’s advantage. It creates a jarring alternation between the reverie of her paintings, and the reality of the photographs—but it makes a point.


Peyton is trying to take her name back; she wants to change the “read” on her work, which until now—and of her own making—has been all fantasy and light. Even the press release quotes art critics—me included—describing her paintings as “swoony,” “majestic,” and “about fashion and beauty.”


Peyton was only 29 at the time of her second solo show in New York, in 1995, so while her love was fresh, not surprisingly, it was also innocent, immaculate, and with the adoration of a fan—a female fan, in particular.


Peyton was transfixed by these fucked-up, androgynous, needs-a-mom boys, whether the clan of the junkie damned (Sid Vicious, Kurt Cobain, and Elvis Presley), or the young princelings and faunlets of rock (Beck, Liam Gallagher, and Jarvis Cocker). But she painted them with a fluid, sexy touch that negated issues of illustration or kitsch, and helped melt the ice that had formed around painting in the early 1990s. Somehow, Peyton was entirely in her moment and her own mind at the same time: here and there. It was strange and enticing, but it was also limited.


Peyton must have sensed this. Around 1997, she tried to deepen her work by adding artists and art-world associates to her repertoire of rockers and royals. She wanted to let people know this wasn’t just “girl stuff” or puppy love—that these people were real, and she loved them. Ironically, the new work was read as more ethereal, cliquish, and post-Warholian. She was painting real heroes but everyone saw them as romantic apparitions. Of course it didn’t help that she painted like an angel and made all her men look angelic. Her work was about love, but it felt like she kept it at an idealizing arm’s length. Alluring and blissful, her art lacked gravity—in a way, it lacked life.


Peyton’s work is in a holding pattern, however; the combination of the paintings and the photographs suggests that she is trying to get psychologically closer to love. It’s a gutsy move for an artist who could have coasted through this show. But does it work, and is it enough?


When it comes to the paintings, you have to look close. Three or four are as good as any she has made. One, of the German rocker Jochen Distelmayer, is a knockout: a through-a-crowded-party portrait of this rose-lipped redhead, who looks at you with these baby blues so intensely that you almost blush. It’s delicate and gorgeous, but there’s still something fairy-tale about it. There are also five images of her latest muse, sensitive indie rocker turned star Elliott Smith; the one of him sitting, slouched on a bench, is the best. Otherwise, in these images, Peyton’s up to her old from-afar deification. These boys are beautiful but inaccessible.


Two of the paintings, however, suggest something more realistic. One is of Colin de Land. Who is de Land? Since 1980, the owner of American Fine Arts, but art dealer doesn’t describe him. He’s sort of the Keith Richards of the art world—a warhorse and the real thing. Renegade individualist and disheveled dream boat, de Land is painted sitting in Peyton’s studio. He wears a fantastic gray knit Yankees cap inside out, and sits in a dazzling yellow chair. You can see from the nearby photographs of him that she has made him much younger and paler. But he is a real person in a real place. In this painting, and one other little one of de Land, Peyton makes her big move, although it’s so subtle you may have missed it. She is replacing the starry-eyed fantasy with a more complex fiction.


The other work that hints at this shift is a large, almost abstract watercolor of Prince Harry. It’s true that royals are like rock stars, but instead of painting William, the future king, she’s chosen Harry, the eternal prince. Harry is the ultimate needs-a-mom boy, and she depicts him with simple dignity. Like de Land, Harry will probably never be a king, but both are glorious in their fashion. Strangely, Harry looks a lot like Peyton. Judging from her paintings, Peyton often fancies herself a boy. In her art, she hangs out with the lads—semi-invisible, one of them, and yet, not. Perhaps she can get close because there is no threat of sex. But love is in the air. Peyton signs one drawing of Elliott Smith with a tiny E—their shared initial. You can see a genuine struggle with this real/imaginary, close/far dilemma.


That, I think, is why the photographs are here: to draw these fantasies into reality; to show you the things she loves actually exist. Her shiny Cibachromes are nothing special. I wouldn’t want to own one. But installed with the paintings, they reveal an intricate approach/avoidance dance with intimacy. It starts from afar, goes to a middle distance, and in three or four pictures, ends up face-to-face—which for Peyton is pretty shocking.


There are two photos taken from behind and far away. One is of Pavement’s Stephen Malkmus, the other is of the artist Craig Wadlin—both men she has painted before. This is the Peyton of 1993–97. The love is there, but it’s nonthreatening. Until recently, in fact, she seemed capable only of looking at men who were not looking at her, as if eye contact would be too intense.


In another telling shot, Peyton moves closer—though she still hovers just out of harm’s way—as she gazes at a group of boys on a London street. You’d have to be an insider to know this, or be told, but this is a portrait of a number of young men who are having their day in the art world—they’re all on the rise. Among them is the painter Peter Doig (her first balding subject, I might add), critic-curator Matthew Higgs, Martin McGeown and Andrew Wheatley of London’s Cabinet Gallery, and her friend and art dealer Gavin Brown. You can see how she hangs on every moment, how she loves being here, now; but when you compare these faces to the faces she paints, you can see the moment passing. These men aren’t just pretty boys; they’re mature, they work hard, are not otherworldly or especially decadent, and they are aging. Throughout this exhibition Peyton is showing you a generation coming to power.


All this can make her art seem clubbish or like an imitation of Billy Name’s Warhol Factory photos. But Peyton simply shows you her world and her process; shows herself edging closer, living life, not just painting it. She’s trying to show you that, while she embellishes life, she’s not pretending. She has to push her paintings further, but she seems to want to discard and interrupt the girl-fan thing. And while her images may be mediated by a photographic or fictional distance, her love is real, and getting more so.