Adventures of a University Finalist

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Spiral Stairs' Bluegrass Boogie


Pavement - Spit on a Stranger
Nickel Creek - Spit on a Stranger

It begins with a bang. A half second snippet of stoner rock - perhaps the long forgotten hybrid of 'Silver Machine' and 'Immigrant Song' for which Don Quixote and his faithful steed Rochinate searched so long. This, however, quickly dissipates replaced by a small baby gurgling 'Selling England By the Pound' and clean unobtrusive arpeggios. It is the sound of the Big Bang. It is the sound of stars collapsing into blissful entropy. It is the sound of space curling up the folds of her summer dress and dancing over the universe's edge. It is Pavement's bugle call before stepping on a rainbow to the heavens above.
Of course, due to it being Pavement who are writing their eulogy before the HMS Wowee sinks beneath the liquorice waves, 'Terror Twilight', their final album (from which 'Spit on a Stranger' is the opening track) was everything that the band had never been before: clean, precise, docile, populist. In other words, it was a sound of a group reaching a plateau and bailing out before they had a case of the Sugarloaf Mountains on their hands. 'Spit on a Stranger' is a rare entity in the lexicon of Malkmus & Co in that it's a simple unadulterated pop song. The band had created such a beast on their previous efforts in the shape of 'Shady Lanes'. Other tracks off the album such as the beautiful 'Major Leagues' and whimsical nonsense of 'Carrot Rope' amount to efforts as to the same objective. However, "Honey, I'm a prize/You're a catch/We're a perfect match/We're a perfect match/Like two bitter strangers" creates such a perfect brew of apples n' pears joy and blatant romantic nihilism accompanied by the rhythm section's laconic anti-harmonies that this song has always been a favourite.
This particular reputation is greatly enhanced by bluegrass trio Nickel Creek's take on the song from their 2002 cut 'This Side'. The threesome of Chris Thile, Sara and Sean Watkins drop the Steppenwolf feint and kick straight into the first verse with a soulful chicken fried snake of a lead vocal and a staccato mandolin chord burst. A steel acoustic fleshes out the mandolin as it flits across the song's chord progression and by the song's end this is joined by what can only be a heavily distorted fiddle which almost pushes the song into flux. The harmonies too are no longer fuelled by cheap Belgian lager but rather sour mash; from a slur to an outrageous purr. By the time everything's coloured acapella the breath is well and truly stolen from you and fed to the birds. I'd just love to see what they would do with the willfully heretical 'Folk Jam'.

Buy - Nickel Creek - This Side
Buy - Pavement - Terror Twilight