Preston School of Industry at the Mercury Lounge
New York City, March 29, 2004
There’s good news and bad news about the Preston School of Industry. First, it’s nice to report that ex-Pavement guitarist Scott Kannberg has improved as a singer since “Date w/ IKEA” (off 1997’s Brighten the Corners). The muddy indistinctness of his voice has been replaced with something warmer and bolder, brightening his feel-good California rock with a rich emotionality reminiscent of Gene Pitney. Kannberg also has good rock-singer chops – he can scream just as well as his former bandmate, the now-Jicks-leading Stephen Malkmus, and in performance at the Mercury Lounge on March 29, he appeared
energized and committed in his new role as frontman of his own band.
A greater surprise was Kannberg’s skill as a songwriter. If earlier Pavement tunes “Hit the Plane Down” and “Date w/ IKEA” were any indication, he lagged far behind Malkmus with melodic ideas. But on Sunday night, PSOI played a solid, tuneful set of crunchy pop-rock and some swoopingly pretty ballads that a pedal steel gave an idyllic, Bakersfield sound to. If Kannberg’s singing lacks range, he tries to compensate with expression and passion, and it sometimes works.
You want it to work. Partly, the musical legacy of Pavement is so monumental that you feel a warm generosity toward anyone who contributed to it. But also, it’s hard not to root for the genial Kannberg, who played an earthier Watson to Malkmus’s mannered Holmes for all those years. The chemistry that worked so well for fans was evidently not easy for these two personalities (they seem much happier apart), and Malkmus’s very brilliance makes you sympathize with Kannberg’s grab for the spotlight. After all, he’s been the Barney Rubble to Malkmus’s more mercurial Fred Flintstone (are these analogies getting old? But they’re so fun!) and that must have been a bit of a thankless task. But in any case, there are a lot of things to admire about Kannberg, like his unpretentious personality, his refusal to have anything to do with Rolling Stone magazine, and of course his guitar work, which was a key part of Pavement’s innovative, textured sound.
Okay, but so the bad news is, you don’t have any idea, ever, what Kannberg is singing about, so an emotional response is impossible. Malkmus wrote in riddles, but he could also be direct: “A voice coach taught me to sing, he couldn’t teach me to love” is a clear statement, and it tells us a lot about where the singer was when he wrote the song. But physically (in terms of setting) and emotionally, Kannberg’s songs float, one line disconnected from another, and none seemingly connected to the singer. It’s hard to even catch the mood of a song – regret? Anger? Relief? Short phrases drift out: “It doesn’t hurt you to feel bad,” which could lead to something, but the next line doesn’t develop the theme. Anyway, it does hurt to feel bad, so the phrase lacks resonance.
People who say they don’t care about lyrics may not notice what good lyrics do. The best riff in the world can be spoiled by a trite lyric. (Crowded House had this problem at times.) Kannberg’s lyrics aren’t trite, but they aren’t communicative either. The impact of a beautiful ballad, “Monkey Heart in the Horse’s Leg,” on which Kannberg’s voice was especially effective, was obscured because there was no entry point for the listener to hang a sense of meaning on. Though it’s easy to think of rock songs whose lyrics only communicate the barest outline of a situation or feeling – “Who’ll Stop the Rain,” say – it’s that bare outline that makes the song work.
The band worked hard and despite the contextual cloudiness of the songs, they put across several numbers from their newly released album, Monsoon — such as “The Furnace Sun,” “Walk of a Gurl,” and “Her Ecstasy Twang (Warm Medicine)” — with a satisfying punch. But the crowd was bizarrely subdued. They did not seem to be ex-Pavement fanatics come to worship at the feet of a shard of Pavement. In fact, most people I spoke to had never heard of PSOI and were there for reasons I couldn’t identify. (Well, one came for an earlier band, The Dears, who were loud, beats-y and again lyric-weak, and at one point sang in spooky unison “We can not ask for more, we can not ask for more,” looking so lifeless and defeated that I turned to my seatmate and asked, “Hey, are these guys Canadian?” and they were!) Scott Kannberg tried a few comments to the crowd but the response was so lacking that his bandmates were forced to step in with replies. It was really quite creepy, making me wonder yet again who goes to rock shows in New York and why.
Kannberg has his work cut out for him. Toiling in the long shadows of Pavement and now-solo artist Malkmus, he needs to find the elusive spark that’s missing from his songwriting. A one-time second banana, he has to give up all the comfort of that position (as well as shed its disadvantages) and step out from behind his noncommittal reticence once and for all.