These days, Stephen Malkmus doesn’t care if you like his music. If the occasionally charming but mostly formless jamming of Real Emotional Trash doesn’t ooze ambivalence, check out his live show. Even with Janet Weiss on the drums now, it’s like walking into a rehearsal: Malkmus with his head down, slumped over his guitar, noodling away. Tough to watch and more than a little disappointing coming from a guy who is capable of so much more.
Back in the mid-’90s, Pavement began moving in a similar fashion. They were starting to make music solely for themselves, though one could hardly blame them. It was a different turn from the one Malkmus has made in 2008. Then, the band was shouldered with the burden of being the “kings” of indie rock, the exact sort of assignment Pavement spent its career pushing against. So they made the chunky beautiful mess that was Wowee Zowee, and while history has been kind to the record — and it should be — response back in ’95 was tepid.
If that album happened as a full-on retreat, then Brighten the Corners found Pavement settled into a new sound — the sound of a band with great instincts making music they liked because they loved to, not to push back at an industry. Where the willful schizophrenia of Wowee Zowee let us know Pavement knew we were still listening, Brighten the Corners focused in a way that showed the band not bucking the burdens of indie rock off their backs but setting them aside to make a great record.
If it weren’t for Wowee Zowee, Brighten the Corners would sound even more like a logical progression from Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain. It takes the country touches and, especially, the classic-rock tendencies of that album but twists them in a more spacious and hazy direction. Songs such as “Transport is Arranged” and “Type Slowly” saunter along at mid-tempo and never slip into a lazy trudge. The aforementioned songs take their time building, starting with meager guitars and quiet rhythm sections backing up Malkmus’ vocal ramblings. Then a riff announces itself in the middle of the verse on “Type Slowly”, or Malkmus gives us the Nintendo-blip guitar solo in “Transport is Arranged”. With that, the band busts out with all its muscle: Cymbals crash, bass buzzes and thumps and Malkmus shreds his guitar strings to pieces, rebuilds them with lilting bends and then shreds them again.
The album is full of songs that take their time gliding along unassumingly before breaking out. Where Wowee Zowee qualified as an exercise in frustration and defying expectation, Brighten the Corners is all about payoff. Any other band would sound humdrum with this smooth batch of mid-tempo tracks, but Pavement packs a lot of brilliant bursts into each song: great choruses on the anthemic “Stereo” and the sweetly keening “Shady Lane”; tight rocking on “Embassy Row”, the most up-tempo track on the record; and brilliant guitar work all over the album. With the feedback tweaking on “Starlings of the Slipstream” and the stretched-out solo to close the album on “Fin”, Brighten the Corners asserts itself as Pavement’s great guitar record. Sure, lyrically, returns have been mixed. There’s creepy confessions (“I put a spycam in a sorority”) and oddball silliness right off the bat (“Pigs, they tend to wiggle when they walk”) but also the occasional affecting observation (“A voice coach taught me to sing / He couldn’t teach me to love.”). The album has enough of those gems mixed into Malkmus’ increasingly Pollard-ian nonsensical wordplay to make it work, even if it leaves you scratching your head. Here, and later on Terror Twilight, Malkmus’ singing is all about great vocal melodies that he breaks from sometimes to ramble energetically, only to return to them with a sweet lilt of his voice. In this way, Malkmus sings much in the way he plays his guitar. And when his guitar takes us to all these great places in Brighten the Corners, his voice follows along.
If revisiting this album wasn’t enough to warrant picking up the reissue, Matador has once again packed this two-disc set full of extras. Are all 32 extra tracks great? Of course not. Some chaff exists to sift out, for sure, but to hear it all together reaffirms how good Pavement proved at paring it down to assemble a great record.
If you’re looking for more than that sort of murky conceptual comfort, plenty of great songs float in the extras here. “Harness Your Hopes” stands as one of the great Pavement songs, period. Initially released as a b-side to “Spit on a Stranger”, its catchy, goofy charm once again argues its case that it should have ended up on an album. Tracks from 1997’s BBC One Evening Session and the excellent live version of “Type Slowly” — culled from a dreadful three-disc Tibetan Freedom Concert collection — show the band in top form live. Non-album tracks like “Beautiful as a Butterfly” and “Roll with the Wind” might identify as second-tier Pavement tracks, but both still sound damn good, proving just how far ahead of the pack Pavement could be.
With yet another set packed full of extras, it begs the question if anything remains in the vaults for the inevitable Terror Twilight: The Strange Name Edition. While we await the answer to that question, we can bask in the slow bliss of Brighten the Corners. It may never occupy the place in the indie rock canon that Slanted and Enchanted has, and it may not be regarded as the band’s high point like Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, but 11 years later, this album still sounds great, maybe even better in its old age. And, as the years go on, it might continue to quietly make its case as the best Pavement record all-around.
You can make music for yourself and still make something people will love. Stephen Malkmus knew that in 1997. Maybe someone or something will remind him of that one of these days.