Spiral Stairs

The Real Feel

Rating: 2.5/5.0

Label: Matador

For some of us aging indie kids, Pavement’s recent announcement that they are reuniting to tour in 2010 is the most exciting news of the year. On one hand, it’s easy to be cynical about their motivation ($), but it also seems just, as they never got the recognition they deserved, being the best and most definitive American indie band of the ’90s. When they broke up in 1999, lead singer, guitarist and songwriter Stephen Malkmus made an easy segue into a solo career and, like Sonic Youth, enjoyed a sort of elder statesmen role. Guitarist Scott Kannberg, a.k.a. Spiral Stairs, has had a rougher road. Malkmus often overshadowed him, even though Stairs co-founded the band and was integral to their interwoven, messy guitar sprawl.

More often than not, Stairs seemed relegated to the George Harrison role and was given a song or two an album, some of them quite good, like “Two States,” “Date with Ikea” and “Kennel District.” And while Malkmus has shown an almost perverse disregard for the Pavement legacy, Spiral has been important in Matador’s excellent reissues of their albums. After two albums with Preston School of Industry, he makes his solo debut, The Real Feel, containing some of the most immediate music he’s made since Pavement. Unfortunately, this momentum can’t be sustained for an entire album. It may be unfair to continually bring up Pavement, but they do cast a long shadow.

The album is frontloaded with the good stuff. It starts off swinging, the robust “True Love,” bursting with ’90s indie guitars and, like later Pavement, melodies, though still a little unruly. Pavement wasn’t afraid to incorporate some classic rock elements and Stairs continues that tradition. “Subiaco Shuffle” has a swampy, CCR feel and “Maltese T” sounds a little like the Doors, which isn’t a compliment. There’s also a country influence, something that was evident on Preston School of Industry’s last album, 2004’s Monsoon. “Call the Ceasefire” has a high and lonesome steel guitar and an offbeat twilight country feel that wouldn’t be out of place on a Calexico or Giant Sand record. “A Mighty Mighty Fall” also features a steel guitar, a Burrito Brothers lilt and his best, richest singing, which falls somewhere between Glenn Campbell and early Scott Walker. If he had made an entire album in this vein, it might have been more consistent and satisfying.

Alas, the album starts to sag as it progresses. This is not helped by a pointless 16-second instrumental and a final piece that consists of Stairs coaching an elderly sounding lady to say “Ladies and gentlemen, Spiral Stairs” over and over again. Why is this at the end of the album? Why is it even here? “Wharf Hand Blues,” despite its Grateful Dead-ish title is neither very bluesy nor jammy. “Blood Money ” is a loose country song with likable female backing vocals, but it goes on for eight minutes, much of it consisting of the irritating repetition of the song title. Too often it feels as if he is in need of a good producer or editor to help him stay focused and curtail some of his indulgences. There are some good songs here, but not enough to tide you over until the Pavement shows next year.

by Lukas Sherman
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