Pavement: Divorced From The Drama

Evan Dickson takes on one of America's greatest bands with a discography of Pavement. 

Pavement might have been one of America’s greatest bands. They were literate without being twee like They Might Be Giants. They were emotional but not overbearing. They could be playful, yet avoided being the joke. So much American rock music suffers from personality disorder... you’re either “dark” or on Gleemonex. Pavement (seemingly effortlessly) captured the whole experience. Sadness, disappointment and anger were certainly there, but they were balanced with romance, whimsy, attitude and a hyper-aware sense of the absurd. Pavement might be difficult to fall in love with, but falling out of love with them is impossible.

My path to obsession took a somewhat circuitous route. I was first exposed to them when a friend played me Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain but I didn’t really connect with that album right off the bat. Instead, I found myself in the audience during one of their notoriously divisive performances on the Lollapalooza ’95 tour. I was enjoying the show well enough until I had to stop a drunk 16-year-old girl from pelting Malkmus with chunks of ice. After that, I was invested. Their slot that day wasn’t particularly electrifying (especially compared to Sonic Youth - during whose headlining set I had a genuine epiphany), but I walked away from it with enough interest to pick up Wowee Zowee. After a few listens of that record, down the rabbit hole I went.

Given the fact that bandleader Stephen Malkmus is something of a history buff, it’s appropriate that Pavement’s catalogue continues to evolve as a piece of history. So the goal here isn’t to rank the albums (I recommend them all), it’s to appraise them within the historical narrative of the band’s growth - hopefully in a way that appeals to die-hards and newcomers alike. For me, it’s a chance to trace their arc as a fan now emancipated from the daily drama of anticipating their next move.

And time has certainly been kind. The highs are still highs, and the moments that were once crushing disappointments (like Brighten The Corners - an album I naturally appreciate more in my 30’s than my teenage years), reveal themselves to be works of great value - stuff that triumphs over what’s played on the radio right now.

I should note that since I’m aiming to focus mostly on the music, I’m going to avoid re-hashing biographical stuff except when applicable to the content of any given record. However, the band’s personal story is also pretty damn interesting. If the Pavement Wiki doesn’t satisfy you, you can try Perfect Sound Forever.

Slanted And Enchanted (1992)

It actually doesn’t all start here, but it’s still the best jumping off point. While many are quick to call Pavement’s debut LP their official masterpiece, I almost don’t think that’s an argument that can be made for any of their records - not when you’re dealing with a canon that includes Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain and Wowee Zowee. Surely the first seven or so years of their career is some kind of masterpiece, but parsing through that to elevate some works above others seems like a needless, myopic task.

Still, it’s easy to see why many people prefer it. It has a noisy energy that doesn’t exist on any of the band’s other major releases. Original drummer Gary Young’s approach was simultaneously boxy and overly busy in a (great) way that emphasized the already prevalent influence of bands like The Fall. But the most remarkable thing about it is how tossed off it seems. Some of the best songs ever written seem like they required no effort at all, as if the author was such a direct conduit between thought and expression that the tune just fell out of them directly. And it would be fair to say that more than a few numbers here qualify as “some of the best songs ever written.”

Malkmus himself has stated that he (at times) prefers the album over Pavement’s subsequent work because it’s not as “self-conscious.” There’s a truth to this that applies to so many bands. When you’re first starting out, every good idea you have - whether or not you’re semi-consciously copping it from someone else - feels new and exhilarating to you. You’re not as concerned that it’s “too simple” or that it might have been done before. Many artists start second guessing themselves after this first go-around, usually because they feel like they’re repeating themselves or someone else. While this is a good instinct in appropriate measure, it can often lead to striking down simple ideas (the best ones) before they get a chance to flourish.

Great ideas flourish in huge quantities on Slanted And Enchanted. “Summer Babe,” “In The Mouth A Desert” and “Trigger Cut” are great, noisy pieces; establishing Pavement’s idiosyncracies as part of the larger zeitgeist. Even more badass is “Zurich Is Stained,” a mid-tempo ballad so self-assured it knows it can pull out at the 1:41 mark and still leave an impression. The album’s boldest statement is probably “Here,” which almost serves as the audience access point. If the album seems cocky and aloof for the first eight tracks, all of a sudden it doesn’t anymore. In fact, repeated listenings reveal it to be highly emotional (save for stuff like “Two States,” one of the band’s many military/historical numbers). It might be the least guarded album in the band’s discography.

Still, as indelible as it is - it’s the album I revisit the least (as far as official studio albums go) out of the band’s discography. I always slap myself when I do listen to it, make a point of how much I love it and promise to engage with it more often - but it still doesn’t happen on a regular basis. Weirdly, their most raucous work has, for me, become their most solitary. Perhaps it’s because Pavement is my go-to road trip band and the mix on Slanted and Enchanted (which Gary Young also engineered) grows tinny and abrasive once blasted above the roar of the noisy highway. Not that I’d change anything about it in that regard, like Guided By Voices' Bee Thousand I can’t imagine it sounding any other way.

Kannberg Quotient: “Two States,” a great Fall-inspired riff on the civil war.

Watery, Domestic (EP) (1992)

A great EP that revisits the Slanted and Enchanted soundscape. All four songs are excellent, but 21 years later “Frontwards” has emerged as the true classic from this disc. That song is almost everything great about early Pavement rolled up into 3 minutes. It’s remarkably wistful with a powerful chorus offset with a refrain (“I’ve got style, miles and miles, so much style that it’s wasted...” ) that manages to combine the ego gratification of rap with the self-loathing so popular with white people in the '90s.

The tracks on this EP are all available on the extended edition of Slanted.

Westing (by Musket and Sextant) (1993)

The very first material the band recorded, before they were even really a band (they had yet to acquire Mark Ibold on bass and Bob Nastanovich on miscellaneous) - this really is where everything started. This album, released in 1993, is actually a collection of EP’s and 7-inches released prior to Slanted and Enchanted. Compiling tracks from Perfect Sound Forever, Slay Tracks 1933-1969 and Demolition Plot J-7 - you can hear the band’s early aesthetic forming right before your ears. After all, the whole thing started out when Malkmus returned from New York to Stockton, hooked up with his friend Scott Kannberg and started jamming out.

It’s also where I pull the “emperor’s new clothes” card. If you meet someone who tells you this is their favorite Pavement record, they’re either flat out lying or are convinced they’re not hearing something that everyone else is. Which still makes them liars, I guess. While there are some great songs here like “You’re Killing Me,” “Box Elder,” “Debris Slide” and especially “Perfect Depth,” a lot of it is fairly impenetrable. It’s definitely worth a gander, but I’d recommend buying it last. If your Pavement needs aren’t sated by their five studio albums, pick it up - but don’t expect it to slake you thoroughly.

It’s worth noting that the EP’s that make up Westing were legitimate sub-culture phenomenons between 1989 and 1991 (and after - my local Sound Exchange in Austin had an exorbitantly priced Perfect Sound Forever vinyl on their wall for some time).

Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain (1994)

If you’ve got a friend who only owns one Pavement record, statistics indicate that this would probably be it. Recorded after the dismissal of the heavy-drinking Gary Young and the hiring of the steadier Steve West, the band’s sound here is completely rejiggered. While it’s not their most intentionally mainstream effort (that would be Brighten The Corners), the radio and MTV success of “Cut Your Hair” moved a lot of units.

What’s remarkable, now that the questions about the intent behind the shift in sound have been answered (indirectly or not), is what a quantum leap it is. Not for better or worse necessarily, but it’s miles and miles different and it feels like a band rather than a project. Courtney Love once said of a then-impending Live Through This that it was so different from Hole’s first album there should have been another one in between. The same could be said here.

This is also the album where one of Malkmus’ central inner conflicts begins to take center stage - class. While he’s a Stockton native and carries himself and speaks in a distinctively Californian way (or did at the time), there’s always been something “east coast” about him. I’m not just talking about whatever years he spent there as a guard at the Whitney museum (or his move back there shortly after forming Pavement), there’s just something at his core that has that aura. I haven’t looked into his family’s economic status (something like that would feel ghoulish to me even though an argument could be made that it’s relevant to his musical output), but he has an old money feel.

He often wrestles with how his normalized, circumspect attitude places himself in the rock pantheon. Even though “Range Life” is ostensibly (partially) told through the point of view of a skateboarding kid, there’s a sense of alienation from big league rock, fueled by a dysmorphic view of his own musical ability as well as the bigger question of, “do I really want this?” His slams against Stone Temple Pilots and Smashing Pumpkins* seem to be more about the kind of stardom those bands represent rather than any direct beef.

This carries over to his distaste for rich Hollywood types in “Elevate Me Later,” where he bemoans “range roving with the cinema stars” and concedes that he “wouldn’t want to shake their hands because they’re in such a high protein land.” The latter remark, legend has it, is a reference to the increased thickness of semen in those who consume a lot of protein. The idea being that, post-masturbation, it clings to one’s hand if the subsequent wash isn’t thorough.

Later in Pavement’s career (and throughout Malkmus’ solo work**) this class examination would extend to liberal college hippie kids as well, to whose willful ignorance and general “ropiness” Malkmus didn’t feel at home with either. You get the feeling he’s socially more conservative than many of his peers, has trouble feeling at home in music and would rather talk about sports.

The music here holds up in a surprisingly powerful way. “Gold Soundz” is a romantic swirl, alternately cynical and infatuated. “Fillmore Jive” is a heartbreakingly epic goodbye to the Rock and Roll era as embodied by people like Bill Graham. Actually every song here, save for “Hit The Plane Down” is pretty infallible.

This was also an especially fertile creative period for the band, yielding monumentally cool b-sides like “Strings of Nashville.” The 2004 extended reissue of the album is full of gems, not the least of which are several songs that would be re-recorded to greater effect in the Wowee Zowee era.

Kannberg Quotient: “Hit The Plane Down,” inspired by the stranded cannibalistic soccer player movie Alive, is a tuneless mess. If there’s any real indie posturing happening on the record, it’s here. Future Kannberg contributions would improve greatly.

Wowee Zowee (1995)

In hindsight, Wowee Zowee is Pavement. It’s probably their worst selling album, but it’s the favorite of many of their fans (mine too, on most days). Released just 14 months after Crooked Rain, it’s not the giant stylistic about-face that many make it out to be. Also incorrect is the assumption that it’s some kind of commercial retreat a la In Utero. At least that wasn’t the intent if the band is to be believed.

Rather, it’s a rich trip through every sonic incarnation Pavement had previously attempted as well as an expansion on their classic rock and country leanings. I think it’s fair to say that many people can enjoy Pavement’s other albums, but if you can’t love Wowee Zowee then you probably won’t be able to love the band itself. It’s the closest approximation of their live sound (save for “We Dance”) ever achieved in their studio recordings and it’s the apex where the variety of sounds on display finally matches the band’s variety of moods and emotions.

The aforementioned “We Dance” is a drunken romance with leisure itself, while “Rattled By The Rush” is a genuine (and fairly hard rocking) lament on modern life. “Grounded,” incongruous LSD mentions aside, contains some genuine outrage towards the broken medical system while songs like “Brinx Job” and “Best Friends Arm” steer the band’s goofy side into near Frank Zappa territory. “Serpentine Pad” and “Flux=Rad” are almost as noisy as anything on Slanted and Enchanted (even though they spring from a self-awareness that was utterly foreign to the band four years earlier). “Half A Canyon” is a surprisingly aggressive epic that finds Malkmus (or Nastanovich, who did much of the on-stage yelling) screaming at the top of his lungs like never before.

It’s also worth noting that Wowee Zowee also introduced those gorgeous, skeletal, sprawling guitar lines to the Pavement canon. Often doubling the vocal melody, they helped define the band’s sound from here on out. They’re most prominently featured on “Fight This Generation” and “Grave Architecture” as well as the verses of “Grounded” and “Motion Suggests Itself.”

Speaking of, I’d say the true heart of the album for me is the 1-2 punch of “Motion Suggests Itself” and “Father To A Sister Of Thought.” Both are slow and pastoral, and both are indicative of where Malkmus’ future muse would take him. I spoke to him briefly on the Brighten The Corners tour and he mentioned that he could “feel” the slow tunes more than the fast ones - which would make sense considering his output from this point on. While Wowee Zowee is full of downtempo moments, these two utterly nail the Pavement spin on conventional balladry. They’re earnest and affecting without losing the band’s sense of play.

Then again, nothing on the album gives me goosebumps quite like the howl at the 2:56 mark of “AT&T.” Such is Wowee Zowee, a record so great I can’t pick a favorite moment for more than 5 seconds straight.

The deluxe reissue of the album happens to feature some of the band’s all time best songs. Among them is “Easily Fooled,” which can be found on the Crooked Rain reissue in a different arrangement entitled “The Sutcliffe Catering Song.” “Easily Fooled” is the superior version.

Kannberg Quotient: “Kennel District” and “Western Homes,” two fine songs that compliment the album perfectly.

Pacific Trim (EP) (1996)

Three amazing tunes (four if you got the 7-inch) that feel like a natural extension from Wowee Zowee even though only a few members of the band were present during the sessions (originally intended for the Silver Jews). “Give It A Day” takes Malkmus’ penchant for interpolating historical settings with personal issues to new heights and “Saganaw” is the light hangover the morning after “We Dance.” No longer available, all of these tracks are included on the deluxe Wowee Zowee reissue.

Brighten The Corners (1997)

You have to understand that the wait for Brighten The Corners felt like an eternity. Even though its February 1997 release date was less that two years after Wowee Zowee, it was the first time I’d ever had to wait on a Pavement album. The first three were immediately available to me as soon as I became a fan.

I didn’t feel like I was alone in this either, I remember using extremely slow dial-up internet to scour message boards for album info. There were rumors that it would be called “Bright In The Corners” or “Appetite For Deconstruction.” Various tracklists began to leak out, one song was called “Werewolf” (I’m guessing this eventually became “Starlings Of The Slipstream” - which has a “Werewolves of London” thing happening in the chorus). At one point, Lou Barlow’s girlfriend posted a version of “Stereo” to her blog. That took over three hours to download (this was before internet piracy and its shady morals were even concepts to me) and even then it was just the left channel. It sounded like the weirdest, most left-field song ever.

So when the album finally came out... I was disappointed. Many of my friends were downright angry with it. I refused to succumb to rage, instead deciding to spend endless hours trying to make myself like it more. That’s not to say that the record didn’t have some immediately great stuff on it. “Stereo,” the universally sublime “Shady Lane” and the near awe-inspiring “Transport Is Arranged” all popped instantly. But those were just the first three songs. It felt like Pavement was a car that ran out of gas three tracks past Wowee Zowee and Pacific Trim. Everything else was slow and “boring.”

These days I actually think it’s pretty damn good. It’s impossible to tell if my opinion has changed because I’ve gotten older or because I can finally listen to the album without needing it to be something it wasn’t. Maybe it’s a little bit of both. But there are actually very few clunkers on the record and I can see in it now the “Pavement magic” I couldn’t find so many years ago. I used to flat out hate “Old To Begin” - now I love it. And while “Type Slowly” and “We Are Underused” will never be anywhere close to my favorite songs, they’re still heads and shoulders above most of what passed for indie rock before or since.

Then you have “Starlings Of The Slipstream,” which is probably my favorite song from the record’s second side. It’s clever, tuneful, funny and incredibly sad. When Malkmus yelps, “and I put a spy-cam in a sorority” - it feels like he’s saying goodbye to his youth. Which I think is perhaps key to understanding the album as a whole. It’s possible that the band, many of whom were about 30 at that point, felt like they were getting old. The songs are littered with references to settling down, cooking roasts, buying cars and impossible battles (“Fin”). I get the feeling that they felt like this was the kind of stuff that would become their future now that they were being put out to pasture, so why not address it head on? Hell, Malkmus even started capitalizing on his previously hidden John Fogerty obsession with “Harness Your Hopes” (an outtake from Corners that was oddly released as a B-side to “Carrot Rope” off of Terror Twilight. The BTC deluxe set restores it to its proper era).

The truth is 30 isn’t old at all. Plenty of artists make some of their most vital music in that decade (look at Kanye West, Sonic Youth, Yeah Yeah Yeahs or even Malkmus’ solo career), but it can feel old in the moment. And perhaps this was just that moment committed to tape.***

Kannberg Quotient: “Date With Ikea” and “Passat Dream” both tackle the album’s resignation to aging via consumerism. The former sounds remarkably similar to “Kennel District,” only with an added touch of Byrds.

Terror Twilight (1999)

Two years later Pavement was sounding a bit more spry musically, if not lyrically. Funnily enough, Brighten The Corners may have permanently tampered with my anticipatory nature because I don’t remember having a specific set of expectations for Terror Twilight, other than that it would sound quite a bit different. Nigel Godrich (Radiohead’s OK Computer and every album they’ve done since) had produced it and it was the band’s first album in a 24 track studio, so I knew it would have a bit more sparkle.

I warmed to the album quickly, again probably because I didn’t need it to be anything in particular. Terror Twilight is deceptively loose; it feels ramshackle in a bizarrely polished way. It also contains hints (the chorus of “Billie”) of the future prog leanings that would become prevalent in Malkmus’ solo work. Right off the bat “Spit On A Stranger,” “Cream Of Gold,” “Major Leagues,” “Carrot Rope” and “The Hexx” grabbed me. The latter song is a ghostly re-working of a Brighten outtake that had been performed live for years as a straight ahead rock song. This new version was shockingly different, but it quickly became my preferred incarnation of the tune. It’s possibly the iciest, most dour thing they ever recorded.

What’s interesting about Twilight is that, over a decade later, I gravitate heavily to the material I ignored upon its release. “You Are A Light” is classic Pavement through a sci-fi lens, “Ann Don’t Cry” is one of their great withering ballads. I think my post Brighten lack of investment (at the time) led to an impatience with some of this material, and if there was anything I needed to re-learn as a Pavement fan, it’s that the material that tests your patience is usually the stuff that rewards it the most. “Billie,” for instance, is currently my favorite song off the album. I play it often and find myself humming it or playing it on guitar almost involuntarily. It boggles my mind that there was a time when I didn’t think it had one of the catchiest verses ever written.

Terror Twilight also feels like an ending for the band. “The Hexx” makes for a great curtain call with “Carrot Rope” (treated like an afterthought on the tracklisting with the slightly modified title of “...and Carrot Rope”) as the encore. It’s a sunny send off and the only track on the album to prominently feature vocals from the other members. I suspect that, even if the band had yet to reach the consensus that this was their swan song, Malkmus had already decided to pull the plug. The ensuing tour was dotted by tension, with Malkmus telling fans in interviews, “don’t get your hopes up, but don’t get your hopes down either.”

Kannberg Quotient: Zero. Malkmus omitted his songs from the running before the band even started recording.

Solo Careers

It’s been said that Terror Twilight is essentially the first Stephen Malkmus solo album, but I’m not sure I agree. Even though the roles of the other members may have been diminished by Malkmus and Godrich, the songs are still very much in the Pavement mindset. It’s a mindset that carries through to his self-titled solo debut (which, in Brighten The Corners fashion, disappointed me when it came out in 2001 but I can now find little fault with).

His next work, Pig Lib, released in 2003 and credited to his band The Jicks, feels like the first real Malkmus solo moment. It’s an angular album, filled with odd time signatures and a precision Pavement probably could have never pulled off. His next record, 2005’s Face The Truth, is a return to more conventional songwriting and features the amazing “Freeze The Saints” which contains the immortal words, “done is good, but done well is so much fucking better.”

2008’s Real Emotional Trash embraces the proggier side of the Jicks and features some notable guitar heroism from Malkmus but, depending on your tolerance for jams that could have been conceived at the Telluride Music Festival, can be a slog at times.

2011’s Beck-produced Mirror Traffic manages to cull together some of the finest songs of Malkmus’ post-Pavement career into a remarkably cohesive album.

While I haven’t really kept up as deeply with Scott Kannberg’s solo outing, The Preston School Of Industry, I can say that their work is surprisingly different than his Pavement contributions. I don’t really connect with their full-lengths, All This Sounds Gas and Monsoon, but I’d say that they’re solid pieces of work.

It’s also worth checking out Starlite Walker from the David Berman-led Silver Jews. Malkmus and Nastanovich are the primary collaborators and it, at times, feels a lot like a (more drunk and depressive) Pavement album.

Footnotes

* It should be noted that I don’t think the Smashing Pumpkins remark in “Range Life” was made with a great deal of malicious intent. It’s offhanded in a way that suggests Malkmus simply thought it would fly off into the ether, as the thoughts of the song’s protagonist are wont to do. Eventually it escalated, with rumors swirling that Corgan had eliminated Pavement from the running for 1994’s Lollapalooza tour. Whether or not that’s the case, the Pumpkins singer made note of his distaste for the lyric in several print interviews and basically went on to call Malkmus a bully in a 1995 Rolling Stone interview.

I had always imagined that Malkmus had just let this whole thing roll off his back, but there’s a chance that’s not the case. In 1997, I wound up on his tour bus to interview him for a college fanzine I was planning on starting. When asked what he was afraid of, his immediate response was “not Billy Corgan.”

As a huge fan of the Smashing Pumpkins I should note that liking Pavement no longer precludes me from enjoying their music (as it briefly did - when you’re young you’ll hinge your sense of identity on the strangest things). I once dreamt of a split 7-inch where they covered each other’s songs (Pavement was known to play “1979” derisively at least once); the cover being a thin tan hand shaking a slightly meatier pale hand with a red birthmark.

Ironically, Siamese Dream was one of the reference discs the mixing engineer would refer to while finishing Crooked Rain.

** “off came those awful toe rings” - Jenny And The Ess-Dog (2001)

*** A few months later, when the “Stereo” and “Shady Lane” singles had come out, I used their B-sides to make an alternate sequence - trying to improve the album. I swapped out “Old To Begin,” “Date With Ikea” and “Type Slowly” with “Cherry Area,” “No Tan Lines” and “Westie Can’t Drum.” It was... uneven.

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