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Just the Facts

  Perfect Sound Forever: The Story of Pavement
Rob Jovanovic
Justin, Charles & Co., 2004
Rating: 3.0

Posted: June 10, 2004

By Laurence Station

Rob Jovanovic's great failing in telling the story of Pavement (arguably the best and most influential American indie rock band of the 1990s) is that he never adequately justifies what made the band's music so remarkable. Nor does he satisfactorily explain what made its members tick. Of course, the source material might be more the problem than the doggedly earnest Jovanovic, who manages a level of access to the group (disbanded since 1999) that is quite laudable. There's no dirt-poor, Mississippi-born truck driver stopping in at Sam Phillips' Sun Studio in Memphis to cut a record for his mother who ends up co-opting black music for a white audience in the 1950s; there's no small-town boy from Minnesota arriving in New York in the early '60s to forever change the face of folk and, ultimately, popular music. None of the band's members are the scions of notable musicians. Simply put, Pavement has no mythic back story.

In fact, there's nothing in the sundry backgrounds of Pavement's members that explains how the band created some of the most intelligent and brilliantly idiosyncratic music of the past decade. What does come across in Jovanovic's relatively brief (200-odd pages) and easy-to-read recounting of the band's career is that Pavement managed to successfully synthesize '70s and '80s punk and underground influences (Can, The Fall, Minutemen, Naked Raygun, R.E.M., Talking Heads, X, et al.) with the sound of classic pop and rock artists (Bob Dylan, KISS, Yes) into a uniquely noisy and listenable sonic brew.

Jovanovic covers the basic facts about the band members (where they came from; what they did before joining Pavement) and follows the making of the group's early releases and five full-length studio albums. And we learn what life on the road was like for Pavement (typical war stories akin to all touring bands -- providing said bands prefer playing Scrabble to boffing groupies). But what's missing is a deeper dissection of the music. The book is after all named Perfect Sound Forever (after the band's 10" third release on the Drag City label). Where that "perfect sound" came from and how it mutated and evolved as the band dealt with success, critical backlash and collaborations with big-name producers is dispensed with in a frustratingly rote manner. When Nigel Godrich talks about the difficulty of producing Terror Twilight, Pavement's final album, he simply rehashes what the sessions were like. We never get inside the head of Godrich or the band members; it's just a pedestrian discussion of how the album was recorded rather than a deeper insight into the various forces pulling the band apart at the time.

The primary reason for many of these unanswered questions, unquestionably, derives from the difficulty of prying any candid revelations from Stephen Malkmus, Pavement's famously oblique leader. Malkmus, who once claimed in song "If my soul has a shape, well, then it is an ellipse," is the skeleton key to understanding Pavement. Whereas co-founder/childhood friend Scott Kannberg served as the pragmatic, steadying force selflessly championing the band ideal (i.e., no egos; democratic band decisions, etc), lead singer Malkmus, despite producing over ninety percent of band's lyrical content and the bulk of its distinctive guitar riffs, comes across as a detached, at times indifferent cohort to the idea of Pavement, the band. If nothing else, Malkmus used Pavement as a self-aggrandizing creative outlet, a way to hone his skills and expand his musical knowledge. Before recording Terror Twilight, Malkmus had the entire album worked out, and grew impatient when fellow members failed to pick up on their respective parts swiftly enough. Perfect Sound Forever doesn’t fully examine the incongruity in Malkmus' passive-aggressive autocratic control of a supposedly democratic outfit or the irony of such a Billy Corgan-esque primus inter pares dynamic within a band whose restless aesthetic had been antithetical to such clichéd rock star pomposity.

The most fascinating aspect of the band -- the presumed tension between the egalitarian, non-prolific Kannberg and the self-centered but remarkably fecund Malkmus -- is left regrettably unexplored. When the Terror Twilight tour ended in 1999, the band members returned to their respective homes and simply never regrouped; the lack of a definitive showdown between the two founding members is partly to blame for the book's lack of closure. Jovanovic quotes Kannberg describing a call he received from Malkmus the following year asking him to make an announcement on the Pavement website regarding the disbanding of the group, apparently catching Kannberg (and the rest of the band) completely off guard. If Malkmus no longer wanted to be a part of the band, then there could be no more Pavement, a crucial implication Jovanovic scarcely addresses.

For curious diehards, Jovanovic's book fills in a few gaps regarding the band's early years, and it's easy enough to make educated assumptions about the underlying motivations behind the ultimate dissolution of the band; casual readers will mostly be left wondering what the heck all the fuss was about. The Slow Century retrospective DVD does a much more insightful and entertaining job of capturing the group's haphazard, inspired, wonderfully oddball and inevitably brief gestalt. Jovanovic's book is a decent supplement, but hardly an essential addition to the Pavement canon.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A masterwork
 4.0-4.9: Great read
 3.0-3.9: Well done
 2.0-2.9: Ordinary
 1.1-1.9: Sub par
 0.0-1.0: Horrendous

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