Gold Soundz

The 20 Essential Pavement Songs

by Arnold Pan

9 August 2011


Talk about a late career renaissance: Stephen Malkmus has been on quite a roll of late, between the well-received Pavement reunion tour last year and a new album to his name that’s receiving the strongest buzz he’s probably ever generated with the Jicks. Malkmus and Pavement finally got their due from a popularity standpoint after getting back together again in 2010, playing to the large crowds that eluded them during their mid-1990s heyday and finally banking in on all the indie cred they’d built up over the years. And the old band even learned some new tricks, as the once ornery, willfully difficult group decided there was nothing wrong with being crowd pleasers. At its last U.S. concert date at the iconic Hollywood Bowl, you could say that Pavement finally fulfilled its destiny and became the biggest band in the world for at least one night, playing to a rapt crowd spread out as far as the eye could see. The experience even drew Malkmus out of the shell he sometimes retreated to on stage in the past, as he implored the band to hurry up and have a sense of urgency in order to make it through all the fan favorites for the sake of the audience.

Perhaps building on the momentum and genuinely warm memories of the reunion, the soon-to-be-released Mirror Traffic is a return to form for Malkmus, by all accounts the most Pavement-like of his Jicks recordings. Whether it’s fair or even constructive to make that comparison, you can never quarantine the past, as Malkmus once infamously put it himself: Mirror Traffic sounds a lot like the album long-time Malkmus fans have been hankering for, where the only difference between the periods before and after Pavement was just in name.

Maybe Malkmus found some kind of fountain of youth on the comeback tour, since Mirror Traffic mixes and matches his trademark cool with an off-the-wall pop punch in a way that hearkens back to his earlier gig. The new effort is full of rock nuggets of the sort that Malkmus cut his teeth on, mostly swearing off of the ‘70s guitar jams that the Jicks had become known for. Above all, Malkmus’ vocals are as spry and fresh as they’ve been in quite awhile, the lyrics snapping with more bite and style. If nothing else, Mirror Traffic will revive that favorite pastime of indie wallflowers everywhere: the deciphering and dissection of Malkmus’ lines. Whether it’s the scandalous poli-sci pop of “Senator” (“What the senator wants / Is a blow job”) or what seems like open-ended middle-age life lessons on the indie throwback “Tigers” (“Change is all we need / Through and through”), Malkmus reminds us how much fun and how it’s all too easy to read—too much—into his lyrics.

So what better way is there to mark Malkmus’ past milestones and present achievements than to revisit his most memorable lines from some of the best Pavement songs? Malkmus’ worldplay, enigmatic and open to interpretation as it was, revealed different aspects to Pavement, often hinting at a sentimental, emotionally in-touch side that belied the wise-acre reputation that preceded the band. This stroll down memory lane’s shady lane only underscores how a collection of Malkmus’ sharpest turns-of-phrase comes off like a veritable Bartlett’s Famous Quotations for the Gen X indie set. Those are a few things you notice when, to riff off Malkmus’ own words, you go back to those gold sounds.

20. “Major Leagues” (1999)

Bring on the major leagues

For Stephen Malkmus to utter the thought “Bring on the major leagues” is probably too blunt to be considered ironic—and anyway, Pavement could’ve made good on that wish (or threat?) any time it wanted to. Instead, Pavement’s last hurrah might actually be expressing just a tinge of regret over what coulda-shoulda-woulda been. It’s hard not to argue that “Major Leagues” came at a time when Pavement was past its prime, still good enough to hit for a solid average on muscle memory alone, but no longer at the top of its game. Maybe it was hardly as subtle and complex as Pavement’s bittersweet best, but “Major Leagues” addressed Pavement’s fate with biting humor and wistful wit.

19. “Shady Lane” (1997)

You’ve been chosen as an extra in the movie adaptation
Of the sequel to your life

Some have chalked up Pavement’s worldview to a devil-may-care-less attitude, but what the tone of Malkmus’ vocals really captured, with equal parts bemusement and grudging tenderness, was how alienation in its most ordinary, everyday forms feels like. Revealing a more mature Pavement in its crafted rock sound and evocative storytelling, “Shady Lane” reflected on how life imitates art imitating life, its scenes from unasked-for adulthood surreal precisely in how mundane they are. The blind dates and the break-ups inevitably end up in a suburban cul-de-sac, as Malkmus tells it, and how that happens can sometimes seem like a screenplay we’re watching of our own lives.

18. “Range Life” (1994)

Nature kids, I
They don’t have no function

It figures that the closest Pavement ever came to breaking through into the mainstream had more to do with shit-talking Stone Temple Pilots and Smashing Pumpkins than the catchy tune that delivered the butt-kicking—to the extent that that’s possible through faux-country tones and a cracking falsetto. Backing down from a pissing match, Malkmus, rather unconvincingly, claimed that he was dissing his own band as much as anyone else, pointing to the absurd, awkward, and barely perceptible “I/they” hair-splitting in the lyrics as proof. Whatever its true intentions, the song did lay down a marker between indie cred and selling out at the pinnacle of the alt-rock feeding frenzy.

17. “Debris Slide” (1991)

Maybe he is
Maybe he’s not
Maybe I’s
Eyes in the socket
Eyes in the socket
Now I’m gonna sock it

A badge of honor for any Pavement fan is having an encyclopedic knowledge of the band’s lesser known EPs, B-sides, and pre-Slanted discography. Everyone’s got what he thinks is a forgotten favorite that happens to be the same thing for a whole legion of other devoted fans—“Debris Slide”, from the 1991 Perfect Sound Forever EP, fits into that category. With its crappy tape-hiss production and rudimentary riffs, “Debris Slide” is early Pavement in its natural state, primitively imaginative, ramshackle, and unabashed. But there’s already a sense of mystique present, which is the only way to explain how Malkmus’ scatted, nonsensical wordplay comes off like Dada-esque poetry.

16. “We Dance” (1995)

We dance
But no one will dance with us

“We Dance” was far from Pavement’s most ambitious or powerful artistic statement, but the enigmatic tune may have been one of its boldest: Rather than following up the on-the-cusp almost-hits of Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain with a modern-rock anthem you thought Malkmus had up his sleeve, Wowee Zowee‘s opening track best articulated Pavement’s contrarian streak on its most challenging and complex album. In the leadoff spot, “We Dance” set the tone for a change in direction from Pavement’s manifest destiny, with its meandering pace, steely acoustic sound, and Malkmus’ whack faux-British accent. It takes two to tango, and the understated “We Dance” was almost a test to see if you were gonna stay with the one who brung ya.

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