Let's face it: Most rock-and-roll musicians aren't exactly nuclear physicists. So on those rare occasions when a band of savvy rock musicians emerges, reporters usually pounce on them like a mob of doting grandmothers.

For proof, look no further than the indie-rock prodigies in Pavement. The group's members (currently Steve Malkmus, Scott Kannberg, Bob Nastanovich, Mark Ibold and Steve West) are quick-witted, articulate and well read--and they know how to make the best underground art-pop in the free world. As a result, reviewers have spent countless hours trying to dissect the work of these lovable hipsters.

But, according to bassist Ibold, even undying praise has its limits. "There's an article in the new Artforum about our band," he says, "and it has to be one of the most pretentious things I've ever read. The writer compares us to Baudelaire and Nietzsche and a lot of other people that I've never even heard of. People like"--he sounds out several names in his best art-critic voice--"`Neil De-lu' and `Davique Squat-taree.' To me, that is really going off the deep end."

Since 1992, when the combo released its debut album, Slanted and Enchanted, on the New York-based Matador imprint, Ibold and his colleagues have been bombarded with similarly heady adulation. Rolling Stone described Pavement's loose, idiosyncratic sound as "harsh and cerebral...put across with an almost preternatural emotional drive," while Spin called Slanted the best album of the year. The disc also placed second in the Village Voice's prestigious Pazz & Jop poll, causing many observers to dub the quintet the reigning chieftans of indie rock.

Two years later, Slanted continues to serve as the universal standard by which most young, up-and-coming underground acts are measured. Still, Pavement's obscure taste in cover art and its less-than-open relationship with the press--out of frustration, one reviewer fondly referred to Ibold and his cohorts as "spoiled moppets"--have prevented the public from learning much about the band. Before long, the group's members became known as elusive ingrates who didn't know a good thing when they saw it.

For his part, Ibold chalks up these accusations to bad timing. "I don't think we're trying to be elusive," he notes. "We're just harder to get in touch with these days because we don't have a manager--and we're all pretty poorly organized. For instance, I've been delegated to be in charge of press for this tour, which probably means that I'll have to do all the interviews. But as far as being elusive, I'd say that we're as willing to joke around and make up stories [for the press] as anyone."

The quintet's indifference toward its newfound fame also has earned Pavement the not-so-honorary title of Kings of Slack. Although some of the act's sloppier performances lend credence to this perception, Ibold insists that the reputation is undeserved. "I don't know where that [slacker tag] came from," he says. "It could have come from Steve's lyrics, perhaps. He does tend to say `I don't care' quite a bit in his songs. But I think that's just because it rhymes with a lot of stuff.

"I know that's definitely not the case for me," he continues. "I've had jobs since I was twelve years old. As a matter of fact, I even feel strange being in a band and not working. Being a slacker would drive me crazy."

The members of Pavement certainly didn't freeload while making their latest release, Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, a disc that's every bit as engaging as its forerunner. Like Slanted, the new album features plenty of raw, jangly melodies interlaced with fuzzy guitar squeals and neoexpressionist lyrics. The similarities end there, however. Slanted clipped along at a consistent--albeit quirky--pace, but Rain grasps at extremes: Pure guitar-pop ditties such as "Silence Kit" and "Unfair" stand in direct contrast to the abstract, Mancini-like samples heard on "Gold Soundz 5-4=Unity" and the gritty intensity of "Get the Plane Down." By the same token, the country balladry of "Range Life" is far removed from the off-key crescendos of "Stop Breathin'." Rain's clean, radio-friendly tone suggests that Pavement wouldn't mind winning over a wider range of fans, but the record's more challenging moments are capable of repelling all but the most devoted listeners.

If these rough spots don't exactly constitute ear candy, they haven't overshadowed Rain's commercial potential. The disc's first single, "Cut Your Hair," is currently a fixture on MTV and a good portion of the nation's college radio stations. The song's monumental chorus has even managed to penetrate the mainstream: Earlier this year Pavement made its first appearance on the Tonight Show, where the band shared the limelight with Jay Leno and Drew Barrymore. "Drew became a big fan of the band after seeing us," Ibold boasts.

Pavement was also invited to play at this year's Lollapalooza festival--and later uninvited, reportedly because of objections from the festival's headliners, Smashing Pumpkins. According to rumors subsequently denied by their management firm, the Pumpkins were particularly miffed by "Range Life," which includes the lines, "Out on tour with the Smashing Pumpkins/ Nature kids/They don't have no function/I don't understand what they mean/And I could really give a fuck." When asked about the controversy, Ibold says, "I don't know if the Smashing Pumpkins had anything to do with [us not being at Lollapalooza] or not. But I don't know why they'd be offended by the lyrics in that song, anyway. They were just the band that was on the covers of the magazines the week we recorded that song. I mean, it could have been anyone. We'll take a poke at anybody."

Evidence of this willingness will likely be found in the new songs Pavement's players have been writing. Once its current U.S. tour is completed, the band plans to enter the studio and start laying down tracks for its next CD. In addition to the usual pop fare, Ibold says listeners can expect "a lot of space-rock kind of stuff. There's going to be quite a few long jams on this record. We've been listening to a lot of prog-rock lately."

In the meantime, Ibold promises that he and his bandmates will continue to operate under a low profile in spite of the scrutiny they've received. "You can't help but feel a little pressured by all this [attention]," he confesses. "But we still just want to write songs for ourselves. If the record ends up in Rolling Stone's alternative-music charts and all the college freshmen go out and buy it because it's in the top ten or whatever, that's just lucky for us, I guess. But we just basically want to write good songs and have a good time."

As for the unmitigated hype surrounding Pavement, Ibold seems content to let sleeping dogs lie--at least for the time being. "I guess we've lucked out in that we've gotten a fairly good response from the press," he notes. "But at the risk of sounding like Henry Rollins, I would say that we deserve it. We're a good band. It does make me feel that the press actually has a certain amount of taste."

Have there been any other developments in the Pavement camp that will keep scribes frothing at the bit until the next album hits the racks?

"We're considering changing our name to [the mathematical symbol] `Pi,'" Ibold announces. "So from now on, we'll be known as `The Artists Formerly Known as Pavement.' We're all really enthused about it, because we're all good at math and we're all visually oriented.

"Besides," he adds, "We think it will make it harder for people to track us down."

Pavement, with the Apples. 9 p.m. Friday, September 23, Ogden Theatre, 935 East Colfax Avenue, $12, 290-TIXS or 830-2525.


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