There are some who would consider Brighten The Corners to be Pavement’s best album, which is a contentious throw-down if there ever was one. Certainly it’s not without its charm, arriving in February 1997, the fourth studio album in an unbroken run of classics beginning with the lo-fi art spark of 1992’s Slanted and Enchanted. Brighten The Corners would be seen on arrival as the most direct and polished of Pavement albums. Its twelve songs split down the middle mark the point in which Pavement moved into the mainstream without sacrificing too much of their erratic edge.
First fruits from Brighten the Corners began with the word-associative freak-jam that is “Stereo”, a song that appeared in Pavement live sets in varying forms up to a year before being committed to vinyl (cd, tape, etc). “Stereo” was Pavement at their loosest, from the noodling introduction and free-form lyrics that later break into the power-chord chorus which bore no relation with the rest of the song. “Stereo” and its follow-up single, the solace-seeking blind-dating “Shady Lane” would bring along a new generation fan-set for old-timers to cast uneasy derision toward (and in which those who found Pavement via “Cut Your Hair” could breathe a sigh of relief). “Stereo” and “Shady Lane” formed the opening one-two punch that felt like Pavement meant business this time around.
Brighten The Corners was definitely a more concise and considered cousin when compared to the rampant eclecticism of 1995’s Wowee Zowee. The rough edges have been smoothed out and the manic art-rock they began their career with has all but been removed. It was akin to listening to REM around the time of Green, knowing that the band who’d peaked creatively with Life’s Rich Pageant and Document were evolving into the next chapter of their career (which could then be argued that Terror Twilight was their failed Out of Time minus the career-defining “Losing My Religion”) that bore little to no relation to the Pavement that recorded Slay Tracks in 1989. If anything, Brighten The Corners was to be their victory lap, the last great Pavement album before Malkmus assumed complete control and blame for the mediocre finale, Terror Twilight.
Engineered by R.E.M. alumni Mitch Easter and Bryce Goggin and recorded in Easter’s Athens, GA studio afforded Brighten The Corners a relaxed southern vibe, that is perhaps a little too relaxed. “Transport is Arranged” with its woozy mellotron shadowing Malkmus’ vocal is indicative of the pacing on Brighten The Corners. This is carried on into the meandering blues jam of “Type Slowly”, the cocktail jazz of “Blue Hawaiian” and the plodding singalong of “We Are Underused“. Great songs nonetheless, but only “Blue Hawaiian” carries that Pavement spark – the stop/start rhythms, off-key soloing and Malkmus shaking out a few choice couplets. It’s definitely a case of getting stoned to make a record to get stoned to. Only “Embassy Row” and “Starlings of the Slipstream” offer any diversion and intensity from Malkmus’ mellow channelling. If there’s one thing that saves Brighten The Corners from turning into late-nineties background party music is the two contributions from guitarist Spiral Stairs. Given a track or two per album, Stairs has often been the wild card in Pavement’s pack, thrown in to mix things up without fear of outshining Malkmus. This time around, his offerings amount to arguably the best tracks on the album. The R.E.M. jangle of “Date W/Ikea” is a short, sharp pop thrill and “Passat Dream” with its ghostly “ooh-ooh” backing vocals and scratchy wah-wah guitar is Pavement at their grooviest, and a potential remix moment gone begging.
It would be hard to believe that technology has advanced to the point where a 1997 recording could be improved by remastering, but there are some pronounced differences between tracks here that are too obvious to ignore. “Date W/ Ikea“ especially has been boosted with a background of added fuzz and random noise that was barely noticeable on the original. Other tracks benefit from extra clarity and seperation between instruments that were barely present on the original, allowing for a new appreciation to be found (not just a case of ‘like the original but LOUDER‘). The main enticement for Pavement fans on their second or third round of buying this record is the unreleased material and radio session tracks which characteristic of these reissues there is an abundance of. Major highlight is the song “Nigel” which was performed live once and ridiculously never heard of again, and the instrumental “Beautiful as a Butterfly“ and “Cataracts“, two songs which have never seen the light of day before until now (and perhaps with good reason…). If this isn’t enough there’s a session from KCRW’s Morning Becomes Eclectic where they premiere four previously unheard (outside of tape-trading circles) songs. Another unexpected inclusion is their improv freak-jam “Space Ghost Theme” taken from their classic appearance on said cartoon. Well-worth Youtube-ing if you haven’t already seen it.
It’s satisfying to look back on the good old days and be reminded just how good Pavement were. Nothing that Malkmus went on to do with the Jicks, or Stairs with the short-lived Preston School of Industry could diminish what this band achieved in their ten year tenure. In fact, if it wasn’t for Pavement, I wouldn’t be where I am now (and come to think of it, now I know who to blame). An essential album from an essential band.