Pavement and Red Hot Chili Peppers
8 June 1999
A frequent, dogging criticism of Pavement involves the slack or lazy qualities some associate with the band. Yes, their live performances were frequently a bit sloppy, and singer and primary songwriter Stephen Malkmus has a delivery that supports such a criticism, though largely as a matter of style. It would be difficult to imagine his lyrics functioning well outside of the Pavement signatures: shabby appearance, meandering guitar strums, speak-singing, stunted rhythms, and unique cadences. It’s convenient to call the band members slackers, but to spend some time with the music is to realize that the alleged laziness is really an appropriate form for the loose, circuitousness content.
The big picture was always, in fact, quite active. Pavement released five memorable studio albums in the 1990s, and even as irony couldn’t beg for death quickly enough, Malkmus found new ways to make us wonder what he meant, how he meant it, and if all of the catchy but inscrutable non sequiturs would ever add up to something resembling a return on the sometimes obsessive investment of many listeners.
Also noteworthy was the critical elevation of Pavement as standard-bearers of specious genres (indie rock, college rock, etc.) that aren’t genres at all, but instead ways to describe the production/distribution models and markets for the music the band created. There were likely many reasons for the increasing dysfunction and dissolution of the band in 1999, but it’s reasonable to suggest that shouldering a generation’s habitually misunderstood spirit is not a desirable job. Kurt Cobain didn’t want it, either.
Although Terror Twilight isn’t a suicide note of an album, it is an exceptional farewell. Produced by Nigel Godrich, the album hangs together more solidly than earlier Pavement albums without ever sounding overly ambitious. The cohesion and purpose of Terror Twilight suggests a level of maturity that is somewhat deceiving. While the songs are more carefully crafted and the production is better than ever, the album is less of a full-band effort than any of Pavement’s previous releases.
For many, the first two Pavement albums, 1992’s Slanted and Enchanted and 1994’s Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain found the band at their rough-around-the-edges best. After testing the limits of experimentation with 1995’s Wowee Zowee, Mitch Easter helped the band recalibrate with Brighten the Corners in 1997. But, according to various accounts, the smoothing of the Pavement sound occurred parallel to the disintegration of the band.
Perhaps it is the acknowledgment of the inevitable End that gives Terror Twilight its emotional weight. Single “Spit on a Stranger” concerns a kind of incongruous dependency: “Honey I’m a prize and you’re a catch and we’re a perfect match / Like two bitter strangers”. The song is romantic, but exposes the faults of such idealism, wary of its promises, even as they are being sung (“I’ll try the things you’ll never try / I’ll be the one that leaves you high”).
The anxious, tentative guitars of “Cream of Gold” reinforce its tale of a doomed affair as Malkmus declares, “I sensed the toxic aura from the second we touched”. The minute-long guitar solo that closes the song is an extension of the conflicted leave-taking theme that defines the album. The full poignancy arrives with ballad “Major Leagues”, which assesses the conflicts and dismissals of the album’s first half and stares down the uncertain future. “Speak, See, Remember” foretells the classic/progressive rock direction of Malkmus and the Jicks, invoking the “terror twilight” and decrying the insatiable creep of corporate greed as openly as “The Hexx” explores the emptiness of careerism.
Closer “Carrot Rope”, also a single, leaves no doubt that the jig is up. “Debating if it’s time to drop the bomb on you, my dear”, Malkmus sings in a final stab of wit. But every song on Terror Twilight has already dropped multiple hints that this is the band’s final act. Of course, this is all much easier to discern in retrospect, and there is always the temptation to read too much into the text. However, the inescapable atmosphere of twilight that permeates the album’s 44 minutes is not the accidental productivity of a bunch of slackers.
Although Pavement’s previous four albums are to varying degrees Rorschach tests for the perceptions of the listener, Terror Twilight movingly pulls back the curtain on the tensions and vulnerabilities of “indie rock” royalty. This brief but powerful moment of access is the best kind of swan song, because as much as fans might have wanted the band to stay together, Terror Twilight convinces the listener that a perfect sound cannot last forever. Thomas Britt
8 June 1999
Red Hot Chili Peppers
Of all the things that burned brightly at the testosterone-fuelled Woodstock 1999, none burned hotter than a reunited and rejuvenated Red Hot Chili Peppers. The funk-punksters, who famously donned light-bulb costumes for their set—except for bassist Flea, who, of course, wore nothing—closed out the festival with a blistering set, complete with bonfires and looting. It culminated in a spirited cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Fire”, with recently returned guitar prodigy John Frusciante providing pyrotechnics that could have risen Hendrix from the dead.
Thanks in large part to Frusciante, the Chili Peppers were back on top in the summer of ’99, after losing most of the previous decade to drug abuse and bad personnel decisions (Dave Navarro, anyone?). But the band’s resurgence was also closely tied to the success of Californication, the band’s seventh studio album, which was released in June of that year and would go on to become their biggest commercial success to date. Not only did Californication bring Frusciante back into the fold, it also marked the first time these four Chili Peppers (singer Anthony Kiedis, drummer Chad Smith, Flea, and Frusciante) would reteam with uber-producer Rick Rubin since 1991’s Blood Sugar Sex Magik, the band’s commercial breakthrough.
After the experimental psychedelia and metal of 1994’s One Hot Note—Navarro’s only album as a Chili Pepper—Californication saw a return to the band’s trademark punk-funk sound, but with a twist, as well as an expanded sonic palate. Sure, Flea’s bass is still in your face, and, yes, there are still the requisite overt odes to raw sexuality (“Get on Top”, “Purple Stain”), but there is much more room for melody on this album—most notably “Scar Tissue”, a monster No. 1 hit and eventual Grammy winner—and much more attention is paid to songcraft. Songs like the title track, “Californication”, with its jaded look at the dream factory that is the Golden State, and “Porcelain”, a touching ballad inspired by Kiedis’s encounter at a YMCA with a single mother trying to kick the bottle, point to a new maturity in the group’s songwriting, as well the great strides Kiedis had made as a vocalist.
Californication was not only a return to form for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, it was also the beginning of a new phase in the band’s career, which would see them become the platinum-album-selling, arena-touring machine we know them as 10 years later. It also brought them back from the brink of extinction, thanks in large part to the return of guitarist John Frusciante, who was able to reignite a band that was finally mature enough, and sober enough, to know what to do with that spark. Mike Garrett
// Notes from the Road
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