I’ll be honest: I had forgotten Pavement ever existed. Time was I couldn’t get groceries or take a scenic walk without slotting Wowie Zowie or Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain into my Walkman (yes, with cassette tapes) and hitting “play.”
(The Sounds of) Kaleidoscope’s occasional resemblance to one of the great ’90s bands is the highest praise I can offer. On the other hand, it sells them a little short. The Washington, DC-based quintet, which celebrates its 11th anniversary (give or take a few original members) this year, has members who can list The Lilys, The Still, and The Carlsonics on their resumes. And while their command of melody matches the best of Stephen Malkmus and Spiral Stairs, they have a generally cleaner sound — rich, hypnotic, catchy as hell.
Take “Th’ Strangebirds” from from where you were to how you got there, a jangly mid-album track with Malkmuseque (Malkmusian? Malkmusological?) vocals from bandleader Damian C. Taylor. The main guitar figure is played a little ragged, as if it was supposed to be a bit faster, but it keeps swinging away, back and forth, as the rest of the music builds. It slows down in the chorus, and then as the end approaches, it picks up speed and suddenly sounds more like a power-pop riff. When it’s over, everything falls into focus — the riff was supposed to sound lazy, to sucker you in and kick you out the minute you’ve gotten comfortable.
The band doesn’t exactly repeat this trick again and again, but all of the album’s best songs gather the same sort of hypnotic momentum. Leadoff track “Because I Am Haunted” sounds like Syd Barrett if he hired Sonic Youth to back him on a comeback tour, and it’s followed by a Stone Roses-ish “part 2” that loops some of the song backwards. “New Language” is similar, but more commercial — not more pop, but more like the work of a band about to co-headline a show with Franz Ferdinand. A ringing guitar and moody keyboard come in first to supply the hooks of the song and are joined by some subtly hushed vocals. At the end of every verse there’s a deafening rush of guitars, and then the ringing, moody parts flood back in.
The quality keeps up for the rest of from where you were to how you got there: sometimes a keyboard rises in the mix, and sometimes the guitars take center stage. The lengthiest and finest song is “She’s a Dream”, with dynamics similar to — but not a rip-off of — prime My Bloody Valentine. Breathy vocals vie for space with a loud, distorted guitar figure and little instrumental bursts from the rest of the band. Once again, it builds and builds. The listener realizes he’s completely entranced. And then, it stops.
This is rewarding music — not in the sense that you have to hear it five times before you like it, because once will do the trick. But it rewards attention and re-listens. It’s not music you can slap onto an iPod or run while you balance a checkbook. Honestly, it’s probably best heard live, where the band can extend the songs as it suits them, explore the dynamics, work out melodies you hadn’t previously noticed. But if you can’t see them, from where you were to how you got there will do.