Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Great Guitar Solos #2: Pavement, "The Hexx" (Stephen Malkmus)

Available On: Terror Twilight (1999)
Solo bits: 3:36-4:28

I like to think that Stephen Malkmus became a great lead guitarist and soloist without even realizing it. In several interviews, particularly in Pavement's early days, Malkmus would talk about how the majority of guitarists he most admired were rhythm guitarists, and he felt his own inner jamminess was unremarkable by comparison. Of course this didn't stop Malkmus from playing extended guitar solos that became longer and more conventional as his career progressed (his recent solo album Real Emotional Trash is the culmination of all these disparate Dead and Television influences manifesting themselves in long, awesome yet empty guitar solos). This mirrored Pavement's rise from Fall-influenced indie stalwart to modern classic rockers. Malkmus was always in charge of Pavement (really, someone try to convince me that Spiral Stairs did anything), and by acting as the lead singer, guitarist, and songwriter, he set himself up as a Hendrix type as opposed to, say, a Mark E. Smith.

Malkmus was also, of course, way too laconic and guarded onstage to act as if he was the guitar genius that he was. As a result, he's not generally thought of as a guitar hero, at least not compared to other 90's stalwarts like Kurt Cobain, Graham Coxon, Jonny Greenwood, Kevin Shields, Doug Martsch, and a few others. What these guitarists all have in common is that they all tried in different ways to act like they weren't guitar heroes--but really, they probably knew they were, and took their role as an opportunity to fuck with audience expectations of guitar heroics. In terms of sheer ability, Malkmus could play as well as any of them, save perhaps Coxon and Greenwood. There are many cases of Malkmus' guitar genius at work on even the earliest of Pavement albums, but for me his crowning achievement is the second-to-last song on their last album Terror Twilight, which is entitled "The Hexx."

"The Hexx" stands out, as the title might suggest, as Pavement's spookiest song, a swirling dirge with an odd riff at the center that transforms into a righteous if obscure chorus. Placed as it is on Terror Twilight, it has an odd cleansing effect, given how tuneful and even pleasant the rest of the album sounds (Pavement was in full-fledged pop mode by this point). In fact, I'm surprised that this song even exists, given how puzzling and atonal the main riff is. However, several listens have confirmed to me that it works perfectly within the context of the song, and is in fact a very good example of Malkmus transforming odd noodlings into beautiful songs that automatically strike the listener as classic tunes. This is a gift that few possess.

The song starts out with the aforementioned riff, played by Malkmus, who also starts off singing about "Capistrano swallow" and God swallowing peoples' radars and stuff like that. Eventually the drums and bass kick in, as well as another guitar, although its purpose in the mix is negligible in my opinion until the very end of the song. After working through some very Pavement-sounding lyrics, the riff dissolves into some delicious chord changes, wherein Malkmus aches, "but I...I, I...saw you...reeling in the parking lot," with the "parking lot" part being reinforced by a sharper, more typical riff. After that business is done, Malkmus whispers something that sounds like, "for the pauper's grave," and the chords disappear into the stratosphere, leaving the arch-angular riff to fend for itself again. More nondescript noises are piled on. The drums come back, and finally, out of the ether, Malkmus plays his solo.

The first thing one will notice is that this is a remarkably bluesy solo for a song whose structure seems so ostensibly anti-blues: there's no real tonal center to hold onto, but Malkmus somehow manages to fit in a whole minute of perfectly-controlled blues playing. It sounds like he is playing laconically at first, and he never really gets around to building up speed, but somehow he manages to bypass that and ratchet up the tension simply by playing tiny, perfectly considered groups of notes that never really overlap with each other. Malkmus isn't afraid to wail on the same note over and over, nor is he really concerned with going up and down the fret board. He finds a happy medium, and plays his heart out without coming across as either showy or bored. The end of the solo is really nothing more than an arpeggio that remains constant through the growing sea of noise, and even as it changes around him, he once again finds the tonal center before breaking with it altogether and leading to the triumphal finish.

It's possible with solos like "The Hexx" that you won't really get it the first time you hear it. I know I didn't. It's such a small work of art that it's barely noticeable, especially on an album so full of good moments, but if you pay attention long enough, you see that Malkmus managed to challenge the entire entire idea of what a solo must sound like and where it should fit in, and for this, someone must recognize this beautiful moment for what it is. Listen to it five times in a row, and I guarantee you will know what I mean. Sometimes great expression means facing the challenges your own work faces in a way people won't immediately recognize.


  1. You know, I think K. Peterson and I had a conversation back in 12th grade about what an oddity "The Hexx" was in the Pavement catalogue. That solo is a favorite moment in a favorite Pavement song. I haven't been able to connect with Real Emotional Trash in nearly the same way, maybe because the solos are less concise, and don't seem to suddenly materialize like that one does.

    (Does "Carrot Rope" ruin the flow of that album, by the way? A bit like turning on cartoons after watching No Country for Old Men. Deliberate tonal shift I'm sure but christ, what an annoying one.)

    Not sure I buy Pavement as modern classic rockers. "Type Slowly" (my #2 late-Pavement guitar moment) has always suggested Television to me. Easier for me to hear the band hinting at the breadth of influence on those last two albums than locating myself in a tradition that specific.

    PS - Hi Nathan!


    1. The first time I heard Carrot Rope, I thought it couldn't have been a Malkmus song and was convinced that Spiral Stairs must have written it. If it had to be on the album at all (which is a big if!), then it shouldn't have ended it. The Hexx would have been a perfect ending. But that's a very minor negative comment and probably the only negative comment I would ever make about Pavement.

  2. Greg! I agree with you completely about "Carrot Rope." When I heard it the first time I thought I had just accidentally wandered into an episode of Theodore Tugboat or something. Its unrelenting buoyancy makes it even more disturbing, in a way, than "The Hexx."

    Re: Pavement as classic rockers, I think songs like "Spit On A Stranger" definitely point to a certain Dead-related strain of classic rock, which I realize is not necessarily what gets played on classic rock radio (oddly, I never hear the Grateful Dead on the radio--they need to make way for their Poison and Ratt, I guess). Anyway, Pavement fits fairly easily into my conception of what will be played on the radio 30 years from now, along with Nirvana, Weezer, whatever.

    What's up with your blog?

  3. Totally rad post. The guitar solo on the Hexx is a stunner, and as timeless as guitar playing gets IMO. Glad to have found such a perceptive public articulation of its greatness, nearly five years after you originally posted it.