The reason Murky World has hovered in and around my stereo for months, though, isn't Pavement nostalgia: I can't stop listening to the second song, "Wheel Set," which has a feel all its own. What sounds like a love song sung from the other side of the grave is anything but moribund, with an unstoppable little flute-like synth melody popping up every few bars over a throbbing rhythm section and a chorus where singer Mike Wyzgowski wails merrily to the skies and back, over and over: "the whee-eels are set again / and wee-eee'll meet again." It's a song so nice they play it twice: Hidden at the end of the album is a slow acoustic version (okay, this one could be sung by a ghost) in which a faint tuba in the background replaces the first version's chirpy accents, and a lap-steel sighs "aloha" while the singer sails into the sunset.
Pavement may have crossed over the river Styx, but lead singer Stephen Malkmus is back with his second solo record, Pig Lib (Matador). The singer delivers the de rigueur kookily cryptic lyrics ("Do Not Feed The Oyster"), but also isn't afraid to paint a decipherable, if off-kilter, domestic scene: "There's aggression in the air this morning / got your ballerina tights around my head / in a samurai pose on the bed / Vanessa from Queens." Things get a little art-rocky halfway through, leading to the endless spirals and electrified scales of "1% of One," but just when you think it's getting pompous, Malkmus sneaks in a thorny lyric like this description of a guy pointedly un-bi-curious: "he couldn't commit to / the mental jujitsu / of switchin' his hittin'."
At the far opposite end of the irony spectrum lies Nick Drake, whose too-small and wrenchingly sincere body of work - Five Leaves Left, Bryter Layter, Pink Moon (and the compilation Way to Blue) - has just been reissued by Island. On those three records, released 1969 - 1972 and bought by practically no one, the English songwriter carved a place for himself equal to the more prolific legends Van Morrison and Donovan.
Drake's name has become synonymous with stereotypes of the frail, painfully introspective songwriter, and for good reason; his singing rarely rises above a whisper, he was terrified of performing, and his chronic depression (he died in 1972 when he overdosed on antidepressants) is reflected in many of his lyrics. But that's not all there is to the songwriter. He also had a sense of humor about his melancholy that surfaces in Bryter Layter's "Poor Boy": after a verse or two describing his lonely state, a backing duet sarcastically croons the words "Oh poor boy / so sorry for himself / oh poor boy / so worried for his health."
In a more meaningful way, Drake was assertive when that's what his art required. The engineer for Five Leaves Left remembers expecting the singer to be docile in the studio, and being surprised when Drake listened to the string arrangements his record company had commissioned and refused to record with them. He insisted on having a second set done by a friend, and he was right; the arrangements on Drake's records have aged amazingly well, never feeling dated or inappropriately pretty, perfectly complimenting his gentle voice. Pink Moon, on the other hand, features little more than the singer and his guitar. (The title track was made famous in a Volkswagen ad, and while I detest the idea of using a dead artist's work to sell something, I have to admit that the images are beautifully compatible with the song.)
Island's reissues are very similar to the ones put out in the late '80s by Rykodisc, with three exceptions: they're freshly remastered, supervised by the original engineer; the booklets contain Drake's lyrics; frustratingly, there's no indication of when each LP was recorded or released. Later this year, Island will reissue an expanded edition of Time of No Reply, a rarities collection including songs recorded after Pink Moon - but that's no reason to drag your feet introducing yourself to these three albums, which are as fine as folk-inflected pop music gets. •