Is the band that put the slack in slacker rock finally becoming ambitious? Well, in its enjoyably offbeat fourth album, the proudly more-indo-lent-than-thou quintet still won't be mistaken for the hardest-working band in show business (relax, Billy Corgan and fellow Pumpkins). But this time around, singer and guitarist Stephen Malkmus and the boys shake themselves up and take care of business. The result: their best disc yet.
The 12 songs on Brighten the Corners combine the familiar Pavement elements, but in a cohesive and compelling manner lacking in 1995's disappointing Wowee Zowee. It's all here: the Sonic Youth-like guitar riffs that shift adroitly from spacey to propulsive; Malkmus's wonderfully off-key vocals; the baffling song titles, like "Passat Dream" and "Starlings of the Slipstream"; and the goofy, pop-culture-obsessed lyrics as disjointed as late-night channel surfing.
A pleasant surprise is the strength and variety of the material. With its lilting refrain, "Shady Lane" is an old-fashioned plea for a safe spot in a dangerous world that melodically evokes the Beatles' "Penny Lane." In contrast, "Stereo" blends cymbal-heavy drumming, thumping bass lines and random guitar sounds in an ever-shifting postpunk frenzy. While perhaps not 100 percent pure genius, Brighten the Corners affirms Pavement as one of the best indie bands around. (Matador/Capitol)