“The Real Feel” (Matador) -- 3.5 Stars
George Martin, the Beatles’ producer, once said of George Harrison that he was “always there yet somewhat elusive.” The same could be said of Scott Kannberg.Kannberg was Pavement’s everpresent enigma, writing a couple of songs per album but without a readily discernible style or persona. His songs tended to be impenetrable as well; even his moniker, Spiral Stairs, was adopted in order to give the band an air of mystery. Spiral Stairs was always secondary to Stephen Malkmus, the chief songwriter and public face, but as the 1990s wore on Kannberg became increasingly marginalized as Pavement became more and more an expression of Malkmus’ personal vision. Pavement’s final studio album, 1999’s “Terror Twilight”, contained no Spiral Stairs songs, and within two years Malkmus had launched a solo career—occasionally with backing band the Jicks—that has kept him squarely in the mainstream. Spiral Stairs, by contrast, released two albums with his band Preston School of Industry: two albums that, while pleasant and diverting enough, sank without a trace both in the market and in the memory. The first questions one would ask of a Spiral Stairs solo debut, then, are whether it reveals anything significant about this rather shadowy figure, and whether it will restore him to popular and aesthetic relevance. On both points, “The Real Feel” is frustratingly inconclusive. But speaking solely of the music, its erratic moments of lightness and beauty can make for unexpected delights. Unsurprisingly, “The Real Feel” is so unfocused and incoherent that it sounds either like a throwaway bunch of songs collected over the years or an intentional repudiation of the conventional notion of the album as a self-contained work of art. It is difficult to resist the comparison to Malkmus, whose albums both alone and with the Jicks have been notable for their internal consistency. Every Pavement album had a distinct character too, from the sunny melodicism of “Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain” to the deliberate inscrutability of “Wowee Zowee” and the bittersweet elegy that was “Terror Twilight.” Kannberg, by stark contrast, has put out a debut album whose only claim to a character of its own is a lack of unifying features. At times, the lack of focus is married to a lack of discipline that manifests itself in self-indulgence and tasteless jokes. “Blood Money,” an eight-minute opus, can be counted in the ranks of the former. Its dirge-like feel and length are reminiscent of Pavement’s 1992 epic “Fillmore Jive,” but it has none of that song’s musical variety or piercing lyrical attack. Jokes that fall flat include “Stolen Pills” and, above all, the bonus track, which features an elderly British woman essentially doing a send-up of a Judi Dench accent while introducing the album. Yet these clunkers are more than compensated for by the album’s highlights: “Cold Change” and “Mighty Mighty Fall” are elegant and refreshingly melodic. Stephen Malkmus was generally credited with having the greater melodic gifts, but “Cold Change” is nothing like a Malkmus song; it is strident, anthemic, and a little poppy rather than angular and fragile. “Mighty Mighty Fall” is a full-fledged country song, a wistful reflection on decline and collapse that evokes Ryan Adams at his most affecting. These out-of-nowhere masterpieces are coupled with enjoyable though less arresting tracks like the opener, “True Love,” where jangling guitars reminiscent of “Reckoning”-era Peter Buck lead into an infectious sing-along melody. The lyrics, as ever, veer for most of the album between the unintelligible and the nonsensical. At its best, however, the Spiral Stairs renders this criticism a minor quibble. If “The Real Feel” tells us anything meaningful about Scott “Spiral Stairs” Kannberg, it is that he is every bit as inscrutable as we thought, but possesses a skill of light-hearted melody that few could have credited him with. Like Malkmus’ solo work, this album is unambitious and minor, seemingly intended to divert and entertain rather than truly move. Still, it is an undeniable pleasure to have the inimitable Spiral Stairs back in our midst. —Staff writer Keshava D. Guha can be reached at email@example.com.