Scott Kannberg, aka Spiral Stairs, a founding member of Pavement, has now released four full length records since that band’s dissolution in 1999. The first three are being reissued this month by Nine Mile Records, and give an opportunity to reassess who Kannberg is as a songwriter and bandleader, removed from the 18 years it took for his four records to come out.
It is easy to think of Kannberg as the George Harrison of Pavement, wanting more songs on their records and building up a backlog of songs that flooded out of him once he was freed from the shackles of his sideman role. But Kannberg never really describes it like that – he seems absolutely at peace with his role in Pavement, and the songs on All This Sounds Gas.
All This Sounds Gas, the first Preston School of Industry record, is an assured debut and a cohesive collection of songs. That last bit might have been a surprise for Pavement fans picking up the record, as this had a far more consistent tone throughout than most of their albums. “Falling Away” might be the best song Kannberg has ever written, with its soaring chorus and wild guitar solo doing all the things you want a rock song to do. There are bits of Pavement ephemera tossed in, like Wowee Zowee pedal steel licks and some more shambolic guitar playing throughout, but this is clearly Kannberg staking his claim to a sound.
That sound is very much influenced by classic rock as much as it is by the post-punk/college rock world that was so much a part of Pavement’s sound. “Encyclopedic Knowledge Of” lifts its opening chord progression from Tom Petty’s “Into the Great Wide Open,” but doesn’t stand out like a sore thumb. These songs are all rooted in a more traditional structure, but have room to branch out and do interesting things. Every song retains a bit of the more dissonant elements of Pavement, but finds room for new flourishes as well, like horns, cello, more inventive basslines, and more prominent acoustic guitars.
This record represents the pinnacle of Kannberg’s songwriting post-Pavement, at least up until his most recent record, Doris and the Daggers, and his melodic gifts are clearly on display here. This album might have sounded a bit jarring to longtime Pavement fans, as they are so much more straightforward than most of what Pavement had become known for. It also doesn’t really resemble the later-era Pavement material, which began to coalesce into something a little more polished. But that isn’t to say the songs are boring, they are far from it. The record, especially on the reissue, blasts out of the speakers and sounds as fresh as the day it was released.
Monsoon, the second Preston School of Industry record, sees Kannberg delve deeper into the country rock/Laurel Canyon sound hinted at in places on All This Sounds Gas. Every song, more or less, features a prominent acoustic guitar, and the aforementioned pedal steel shows up more as well. This is also the most polished of Kannberg’s records, although no one would mistake it for a Shania Twain record. The songs, especially the single “Walk of a Gurl,” are melodically strong and represent the most upbeat tone of any of his records.
The one outlier on the disc is the Wilco collaboration, “Get Your Crayons Out,” which is a more experimental, playful song, which may be the most Pavement-ish moment on either Preston record, although its form of loose exuberance is quite different than his former band’s. The cheesy Casiotone and Jeff Tweedy’s ‘shronk’ guitar are sounds not really found anywhere else on the album, and the song acts as a nice palette cleanser before the closing track, “Tone it Down.”
After dropping the band name, Kannberg released his first album under his Pavement-era moniker of Spiral Stairs, although The Real Feel doesn’t really bring the sound any closer to his former band. While the album is a little more loose and aggressive, it also has a heavy dose of blues influence. While Pavement had many acts it drew from, there weren’t many blues licks lifted. And not that this is Kannberg trying to be Buddy Guy, but there’s a darker, more blues-rock feel to the songs.
This isn’t to say that Kannberg abandoned his old sound, because he didn’t. All the elements form the two Preston records are found here, but they’re surrounded by some different company. The album opens with “True Love,” a rollicking, electric guitar number that personifies the more aggressive sound. But that’s followed up by the pedal-steel and acoustic guitar based “Call the Cease Fire,” and the organ-heavy “Cold Change.”
The Real Feel was the most varied record, sonically, of Kannberg’s career thus far, until the second Spiral Stairs record, Doris and the Daggers, took that spot in 2017. But the range here is impressive, from the stomp of “Stolen Pills” to the laid-back swing of “A Mighty, Mighty Fall,” there’s still a lot to take in here beyond the blues-based numbers that make up about half the record.
All three records boast a slew of bonus tracks, from demos to b-sides to radio sessions. In the press materials, Kannberg talks about his love of this sort of ephemera, and some of the b-sides merit real attention paid. However, like most outtakes, some of them are outtakes for a reason, and you may find yourself, like I did, only listening to them once or twice before discarding them from the playlist, allowing the proper record to shine.
But the material here makes a case for a re-investigation of Kannberg as a songwriter. In Pavement, after Slanted and Enchanted, he always felt like a bit of an outsider; a reminder of the band’s California roots, despite the rest of the band being a product of Malkmus’s East Coast living situation. Because of that, Kannberg sometimes felt like the forgotten member of the band, even though he was one of only two songwriters in the band, and has by far the second most vocal performances.
But here, taking his early solo career as a whole, it is easy to hear what he was bringing to Pavement. Not the falling off the beat insanity of Gary Young, or the necessary and odd role of Bob Nastanovich, but a melodic and structural gift, helping to shape Pavement’s records into something special. Those same skills are on display here, and hopefully these reissues remind some old Pavement fans, like me, that while Malkmus might get more headlines, there’s a lot to love about Kannberg’s 21st century output.
Pick up all three albums via Nine Mile Records.
More PCB Music Coverage:
Pat Francis has A Night at the Odeon
Martina O’Boyle asks the questions: Is Adam Lambert good enough to front Queen?
and Could somebody PLEASE make the Freddie Mercury Biopic?!
The Thread That Keeps Us offers classic Calexico, with a twist or two