If there’s an auteur theory of Pavement – “Steve Malkmus was the visionary force behind the band” – both his and Scott Kannberg’s solo albums go a long way towards disproving that idea. It’s pretty obvious that what made the band great was the interaction between the members. And as that started to fray sometime around Brighten the Corners, the music became less interesting. By that time, it was obvious which songs were Malkmus songs and which ones were Kannberg songs, each with little interference from the other or the other members, not just because their styles are wildly different, but also because the last two Pavement albums as a whole are less fun. Unless a group’s lead singer is an outright genius – a sobriquet neither Malkmus nor Kannberg can lay claim to – a band’s going to be its most fun when all the members are shaping a song or an album. As Pavement started to fall apart, the fun part of Pavement, i.e., the collaborative aspect, started to drop off, and the last two albums gradating into both Malkmus and Kannberg’s solo careers become more and more of a slog to get through.
If the central conceit then is that in the absence of an outright musical prodigy, collaboration is what creates music that’s fun and interesting, it says a lot about Kannberg’s third post-Pavement album The Real Feel, and the first where he’s felt comfortable using his old nickname Spiral Stairs. Previously, Kannberg had released two albums and an EP as The Preston School of Industry, a reference to an old Pavement one-off song they did on VPRO, a Dutch TV station. PSOI seemed to be a more collaborative project. While it was undoubtedly Kannberg’s post-Pavement vehicle, that he didn’t use his own name was telling. This was somewhat of a nod back to Pavement, where he and Malkmus started off eschewing their real names (crediting themselves as SM and Spiral Stairs) partly as homage to bands like The Fall, partly to create mystique, and partly as a middle finger to easy commercialization. However, PSOI also seemed to be more of a group effort. While there are some PSOI members playing on The Real Feel, the fact that Kannberg is recording and performing under his own nickname means that, like Malkmus (though to a lesser degree since he isn’t “Scott Kannberg”), he is taking ownership of his music and his sound.
That is the other part about no longer being a member of a group. One must take responsibility for one’s sound and be comfortable telling people, “This is the music I have created.” Perhaps part of the reason for nicknames and mystique and enigma is not just to play post-modern games, but to diffuse the responsibility. Malkmus seems to be comfortable taking ownership for his ideas, which for better or worse, has led him down his current path with the Jicks. It feels like only now is Kannberg really doing the same – taking responsibility and at the same time crystallizing that idea into a coherent sound.
In fact, this is perhaps the problem with both Kannberg and Malkmus since Pavement started to fray. Just as Malkmus’ albums get less and less fun as he takes his updated classic rock schtick to its logical conclusion, Kannberg’s get less and less fun as he takes his New Zealand pop concept to its logical end. As Malkmus and Kannberg each find out what kind of musician each one is, the end result is less interesting than when they were in the process of discovering that and were having fun trying out different ideas and really discovering new things together. Though, frankly, I will take Kannberg’s Flying Nun and Mike Nesmith pastiches any day over Malkmus’ CCR retreads.