Poor Scott Kannberg. During his days in the seminal ’90s band Pavement his tunes were overshadowed by those of his bandmate, Stephen Malkmus. Pavement called it quits in 1999, but now Kannberg’s newish band, Preston School of Industry, can’t escape the legacy of his old band. But here we are 12 years after Slanted and Enchanted, and I’ll be damned if ol’ Spiral Stairs hisself could care less about keeping up with the Malkmuses (Malkmi?) on PSOI’s sophomore disc, Monsoon.
The late, great music critic Butt-Head once summed up Pavement thusly: “They’re so lazy, they’d take a dump in the bathtub.” With Monsoon, no one will accuse Kannberg of overambition. And I can’t decide whether it’s irony or coincidence that the Pavement albums Monsoon most invokes are the ones that boasted the fewest songwriting contributions from Kannberg — Brighten the Corners and Terror Twilight. Like those late-period albums, most of Monsoon is populated by shambling, amiable California indie rock. Kannberg seems to be following his own lazy (but in a good way — honest) muse on tracks like “The Furnace Sun”, “Caught in the Rain” and “Escalation Breeds Escalation”. If the songs were waves, they wouldn’t knock you off your surfboard, let’s put it that way.
On a good chunk of Monsoon, Kannberg — vocally, musically and lyrically — comes off as a poor man’s David Berman… who of course performs vaguely alt-country tinged roots rocks as the driving force behind the Silver Jews… which once counted Steve Malkmus as a member! Wheels within wheels, man, and I’ll give a dollar to anyone who can properly diagram that last sentence. On “So Many Ways” Kannberg sounds like a Berman clone, but lacks the imagery and phrasing; meanwhile, lines like “where you sit determines what you eat, dear” from “Tone It Down” is straight outta Berman’s playbook. One could do worse than aspire to the level of late ’90s Pavement or the Silver Jews.
Noteworthy, though, are Monsoon‘s two anomalies. Most of the album plays out as described above — except for “Line It Up” and “Get Your Crayons Out!” If you close your eyes, the songs can almost transport you back to 1992. “Line It Up” is simply bigger, noisier and better than the majority of tunes on Monsoon that are seemingly created by guidelines set forth by the Committee for Indistinguishable Indie Rock. And “Get Your Crayons Out!” would be cool enough by dint of sounding like Pavement’s slacker-noisy “Two States” (a fact brought to the fore by the song’s faux-Eastern vibe and the opening lyric, “It took seven states”). But Kannberg enlists the members of Wilco to back him on the tune, and of course Wilco = instant cool. The flip side is that these two songs make you wish that more of Monsoon played by their rules.
So what are we left with? For starters, a well-crafted, if largely bloodless, LP from an aging indie rocker who has earned the right to do whatever the hell he wants because he was in one of the most influential indie rock bands of the last 15 years. And taken on its own, free of the Pavement invocations, (what a novel idea for a rock critic!) Monsoon is a quietly rewarding disc, if one is willing to accept it on its terms — as an amiable, sunny (the rainstorm on the album’s cover notwithstanding) California indie rock album.