Pavement didn’t have an image, they were the show about nothing. They looked like the journalists and record store clerks who tipped the scales for them from the start. Still they managed to avoid a much darker fate – the ’90s one-wit wonder band. It’s not hard to imagine a song like “Cut Your Hair” shuffling them off with the grim ranks of Crash Test Dummies and Barenaked Ladies. But that didn’t happen, because there’s an integrity to Pavement’s music that resists cheap consumption, so it can be hooky without danger of going pop, intellectual without being pretentious.
Nonetheless – an old b-side called “Harness Your Hopes” somehow became an unlikely tik tok sensation. Unlikely as in A) it’s a Pavement song and B) it was so obscure that even some aging Pavement acolytes weren’t aware of it. What could be more perfectly absurd than that? Still – the kids get it. “Harness Your Hopes” has all the trademarks of a proper Pavement semi-hit, with its flighty melody attached to stream of consciousness lyrics cast out to catch new meanings (“The freaks stormed the White House”). One suspects tik tokkers will move on to the next fad rather than inventing a booty dance for “Zurich Is Stained.” So maybe Pavement will end up being a one-hit wonder after all, three decades and a new generation later.
Westing (By Musket And Sextant) (released 1993)
This was a watershed era for home musicians, when affordable tech brought the recording studio to your basement or bedroom. Which ushered in the lo-fi movement, when it was de rigueur to release fuzzy EPs of half-formed material, regardless of quality. That aesthetic which seemed cool and even revolutionary at the time just sounds quaint now. Can you just write a good song? Pavement could (“Box Elder,” “Debris Slide,” “Baptist Blacktick”). But they’d get a lot better and for me way more listenable.
Slanted And Enchanted (1992)
Slanted and Enchanted is Pavement becoming a real band, the best blend of their naturally disparate sound. Critics christened it a classic from the gate, like an indie rock Illmatic. “In The Mouth A Desert” acknowledges their status in the indie scene with a cynical shrug. “I’m trying!” whines the chorus of “Conduit For Sale!” like a petulant teenager who’s not really trying at all. The overall vibe is defiantly laid back, each song built on cryptic bits of phrases strummed out with good nerve, careless if you get it or not. Which I really dig, compared to the pompous sincerity that affected ’90s alt rock. These guys are not plumbing the depths of martyr trips, they’re just jamming out. Almost like Pavement were a secret jam band all along.
Elsewhere: “Trigger Cut” rips a melody from Jim Croce’s “Operator” while “Here” gets the Velvet Underground right down to the Mo Tucker drums. The songwriting has been elevated with subtle dynamics and hooks, guitar lines that stick, the vocals right out front. De facto leader Stephen “SM” Malkmus lyrically tosses out near-aphorisms and bits of evocative obscurity. He’s on guitar with Scott “Spiral Stairs” Kannberg, purveyor of the woo hoo post-Stones hooks in the Pavement sound, with Mark Ibold on bass and either goofy Gary Young or steadier Steve West on drums. Bob Nastanovich provides percussion and screaming and essential spirit, like a Will Ferrell character wandered in to an actual rock band.
Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain (1994)
So they didn’t sell like Nirvana, the lo-fi sound just didn’t click with the masses. Which begs the question – what is populist music? The punk band with strict anti-corporate ideals? Or the pop star singing for a stadium of fans? I recall the dialogue from a Spike Lee film as sampled by the Roots: “The people don’t come because you grandiose motherfuckers don’t play shit that they like.” Which explained the shelf life of the lo-fi sound, cooler-than-thou but colder than ice. One wouldn’t put on Slanted And Enchanted at a party lest it be cleared out of everyone but the music geeks.
Crooked Rain Crooked Rain announces itself as something more chilled out, open-armed and party-ready from the start. “Silence Kid” opens with a slowed down Grand Funk Railroad type riff, complete with unironic cowbell. The song speaks of experience, not just lyrically but in its performance, of a band who’d been playing for audiences long enough to figure out what really works, and what risks they can pull off. A key step in any great band’s evolution. So this stuff connects. “Cut Your Hair” and “Range Life” are infectiously great songs that poke fun at ’90s rock attitudes. “Stop Breathin” hints at indie rock star weariness, its cynicism well earned. “5-4=Unity” sounds like it was produced by Madlib, the Seconal-tempo’d “Heaven Is A Truck” has echoes of mid-’70s Neil Young, “Gold Sounds” is the seminal Pavement single. A classic.
Wowee Zowee (1995)
Pavement gets high on their own supply. Wowee Zowee is an inspired set of tunes delivered in an exploratory way that does them a disservice. It lacks the cohesive vibe of the first two albums, and so feels a bit “Rattled By The Rush” – rushed and unsure of what it wants to be. Which is admirable to the alternative, pardon the pun, of hiring an industry producer to whip up a ‘respectable’ twelve song album. They certainly had the material to break big here. “AT&T” would have been polished up to a proper hit, which is to say punched up and dumbed down. Instead Wowee Zowee is a quirky, challenging album that owes a bit to Sebadoh III in its whiplash song dump tracklist.
I love “Fight This Generation” with its kooky associative style, and how it sums up the album itself. That title is almost critic bait, but the song refuses to be pigeonholed. What is it even about? A quirky celebration of the book critic for the Washington Post? Stranger things happen in Pavement world, like how “Flux=Rad” ended up as ECW wrestling bumper music. Wowee Zowee is just a weird spinning menu that can make you dizzy. So you might end up missing or not fully appreciating the moody anthem “Kennel District” or the Slanted style of “Black Out” or Westing style of “Best Friends Arm.” The album only makes sense in Pavement terms. But it can still get wearying on a full listen, like they’d accidentally set their songwriting to EP rather than album mode.
Brighten The Corners (1997)
The title is a giveaway but it was the only way forward – finer songcraft, more subtle dynamics, fully cooked arrangements. Brighten The Corners is a quietly addictive album that springs its hooky songs (“Stereo,” “Shady Lanes/J vs S”) up front to make room for its psychedelic ballads and stately skeletal rock. Some of my all-time favorites are here – “Type Slowly” uses “echelon” as a verb in its elegant balladry like the Stones’ “Wild Horses,” while “Transport Is Arranged” muses on rock star disconnection like the Stones’ “Moonlight Mile.” “We Are Underused” ponders maturity in a subtle skeptical way, and the bent guitar note in the chorus is my favorite part of the whole album.
Yes, here’s where it became evident that Pavement were a jam band all along. Why not? One of their musical influences Television was a jam band too. Pavement’s style of guitar noodling doesn’t aim for virtuosity or extended freak outs, but it’s heady nonetheless. Something tells me that Brighten The Corners was their most influential work, one that inspired other musicians with its fertile techniques and turns. A masterful album that will sink in deeply.
Terror Twilight (1999)
We noted that Wowee Zowee might have benefitted from a big name producer. For Terror Twilight they got Nigel Goodrich of Radiohead’s OK Computer fame. And it just didn’t work. Not that it’s necessarily his nor the band’s fault. This material doesn’t really scream with urgency. The songs float by, dreamily, the quirky edges smoothed out to a somnolent late night fuzz. “Ann Don’t Cry” is some good ’80s Lou Reed, and “You Are The Light” would have fit on Brighten The Corners. But “Major Leagues” is a bit too low energy to be a highlight, and “Carrot Rope” is a misfire that sounds like Weird Al doing Pavement without any jokes. At least they got “Spit On A Stranger” right, which serves as a suitably tuneful and cryptic epitaph.