Preston School of Industry
All This Sounds Gas (Domino)

When sorely-missed indie misfits Pavement went down in flames, the smart money was always on their frontman Steve Malkmus to turn in the pick of the phoenix jobs. In 1989, the California-based quintet started forging a near-perfect blend of flawed, melodic pop and perfectly-pitched daftness that accidentally made them famous; by 2000, a critically acclaimed career had made them slacker heroes of the DIY ethic that underpinned grunge, pet influences to every British guitar band from Bush to Blur, and pioneers of the updated, psychedelic country sound popularised by Grandaddy's The Sophtware Slump. Then, suddenly, they split. Internet discussion forums were flooded. Students wept openly on the streets. And the two masterminds behind the group, the gawky, cultish poster-boy Malkmus and his childhood friend Scott Kannberg (a.k.a Spiral Stairs), started a solo career and Preston School of Industry respectively.

Apparently, nearly half of PSOI's debut All This Sounds Gas was originally penned for Kannberg's old band. In places, notably the irresistible first single 'Whalebones,' it shows. The anthems sound like they've been written purely by chance; the guitars pull fine melodies back from the verge of collapse; and the vocals swing from a mumble to a bark to a half-baked falsetto in the space of a bar. It's initially tempting, in fact, to write PSOI off as identical to Pavement, so alarmingly similar are Malkmus' and Kannberg's tone and delivery. That would be a shame, though, because musically PSOI's material tightens and expands Pavement's sound rather than merely replicating it. In fact, it sidesteps some of the criticisms Malkmus has faced; many felt (alright, I felt) that his eccentric college boy spiel looked pretty thin under the close scrutiny solo projects invite. The tunes were there, but that sweet, emotionally literate quirkiness of old seemed to have given way to a whimsicality less substantial than a prawn cracker. It's a good thing, then, that Kannberg gave us ATSG - because, given a chance, it's made of much firmer stuff. It's more direct in every way, from the sincerity in the pep-talk protest song 'Take A Stand' to the no-nonsense, Pixies-like rocker 'History of the River,' whose unexpectedly sinister, edgy vocal promises better to come from Kannberg's singing.

Pavement's customary curveballs are far from absent - the neo-Nashville slide guitar we heard on 1995's 'Father to a Sister of Thought,' for instance, reappears on 'A Treasure @ Silver Bank,' but for the most part PSOI pursue something fuller and more mature. The standout 'Encyclopedic Knowledge Of' kicks off like Tom Petty's 'Into the Great Wide Open,' and closes six minutes later with a simple, strong horn section that rocks without a trace of a raised eyebrow. Elsewhere there are equally irony-free hints of The Cure (the bass-led openings of 'Falling Away' and 'The Idea of Fires'), REM (the bittersweet, glossy hometown ode 'Monkey Heart and the Horse's Leg') and even Lennon. PSOI have by no means emerged from the shadow of Pavement, but there's ample proof here that they've got it in them. An unexpected gem, and on this evidence the smart money's on an even better follow-up.

4/5

Nathan Midgley