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Spiral Stairs

The Real Feel

(Matador; US: 20 Oct 2009; UK: 19 Oct 2009)

A rich heritage is not something to be totally discounted when considering the first solo outing of someone so closely associated with a notable musical group from the past. Indeed, in this case, it’s become inextricable from him. Scott Kannberg’s (AKA Spiral Stairs) role in Pavement will likely shape the opinion of most who hear this debut. So caution is required when assessing it. If we’re to be fair, we should not place any undue focus on the towering achievements of any previous engagements.


Honestly though, how cool is it that Pavement are back? Come on!


Ahem.


The Real Feel sees Scott Kannberg assert more identity than he’s ever gained by applying a pseudonym. Early recorded works from Spiral Stairs displayed equal parts innocence and arch-ness, a bizarre and entrancing mix that has been something of a debating point for Pavement scholars. Did he complement Stephen Malkmus or distract from the main body of their canon? Either way, Kannberg’s songs themselves were wistful, impulsive and possessive of a wavering melodious tremble in his voice. His work with the Preston School Of Industry, too, showed signs of songwriting guile, a distinctive voice with less of the chemistry.


It is for our eternal benefit that Kannberg has shed any mystique, for his voice has matured quite substantially, providing more than enough character. The words curl a little more, and they’re certainly more melodically assured than on that classic live recording of “Preston School of Industry”. The opening “True Love” coolly asserts a more gravel-trodden aesthetic; bluesy, relaxed and almost conversational in its worldly words. Immediately this is a more centralised, less experimental sound than the wilder Pavement recordings, but that’s in no way a bad thing. Similarly, the winsome “Call the Ceasefire” burns slowly but brightly and with intent, a softened country strum replete with Brighten the Corners-style lap steel guitar.


The signs are good, then. We’ve a generally pleasant musical world, accessible timbres and a new-found earthiness. But then there’s the songs. The songs themselves strive for easy excellence, but aren’t well-considered enough to be excellent. Moodiness is natural for Kannberg, but it doesn’t carry these simplistic songs on its own. If anything, they outstay their welcome. Though the aforementioned sorrowful strum of “Call The Ceasefire” is sweetly unhappy, it is so for six and a half minutes, which is bordering on indulgent.


The sound drifts into murky Americana on “Wharf-Hand Blues” and becomes reminiscent of the Butterflies Of Love, but this is still strangely without much life. It trundles aimlessly with withering sentiments of relationship assertion, occasionally stopping for a remarkably trad guitar lick. This is certainly not the same school of guitar that so wrongly righted the sound of former Kannberg projects. Despite some playful noodlings on “Maltese T”, it rarely goes beyond reaching safe climaxes.


The Real Feel really feels stilted overall. There are pretty moments, but little that’s electrifying. It is perhaps cruel that this album should arrive just as monumental attention is about to be lavished upon a former Kannberg project, but that also serves as a stark reminder of what he is capable of.

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