[15 November 2004]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Photo: Marcus Roth
Attention and Fame… A Career!
Pavement never quite made the leap from indie rock gods to a full-fledged mainstream success, as many had thought they would, but in 1994, they came awfully close. Two years after the masterful, jaw-dropping debut Slanted & Enchanted, irrefutably the most influential indie rock album of the 1990s, Pavement had evolved from a sloppy, yet fascinating recording project between friends Steven “S.M.” Malkmus and Scott “Spiral Stairs” Kannberg, into a full-fledged, five-piece band. Bassist Mark Ibold and percussionist Bob Nastanovich helped solidify the rhythm section, and the band’s unstable (some might say brilliantly so) 40-something drummer Gary Young had been replaced by the more straightforward musicianship of Steve West, ensuring a more consistent live product. By then, Pavement were touring extensively, recording Peel Sessions on BBC radio, and becoming the most written-about band in American indie rock, but the mystery of that great debut album had faded. If there’s one thing that indie rock fans have always loved, it’s the kooky little record that comes from out of nowhere; now that everybody knew who Pavement was, and what their story was, how on earth could they ever record a worthy follow-up to such a classic? Always a band who liked to pull the rug out from under listeners’ feet, Malkmus, Kannberg, et al did the unthinkable, and when fans heard the end result, they could not believe their ears: Pavement sounded normal, and heaven forbid, professional.
In recent years, record companies have cunningly tapped into the whole ‘90s nostalgia trend among the late-20s to mid-30s demographic, re-releasing deluxe editions of much loved alternative rock classics from the first half of the 1990s, such as Sonic Youth’s Dirty, Weezer’s “Blue” album, and Jeff Buckley’s Grace, but nobody, absolutely nobody has come close to matching the astounding quality of Matador Records’ special editions of Pavement’s first two albums, Slanted & Enchanted, and now, the 1994 masterpiece Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain. Simply put, Matador has set the standard by which everyone else is forced to follow, and like 2002’s Slanted & Enchanted: Luxe & Reduxe the brand-new Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain: L.A.‘s Desert Origins is overflowing with B-sides, live performances, and previously unreleased sessions, providing listeners with yet another fun look back at the salad days of American indie rock.
While the production was only marginally better than the primitive recording method they used on Slanted & Enchanted, Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain possesses all the ambition of a slick rock ‘n’ roll epic, employing such sounds as country, pop rock, noisy art rock, and even jazz. In February of 1994, many people still had no idea who Pavement were, but on this album, the band ostentatiously carries on like they’re the biggest band on the planet (remember, it was Malkmus who flamboyantly declared in 1993, “I’ve got style/For miles and miles”), singing about the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle in California, taking pot-shots at fellow musicians, lampooning the current alternative rock scene and the image every band seemed forced to follow, the euphoric highs of fame, the dismal, self-indulgent lows. The band is clearly having fun taking the piss out of their own self-made myth, but underneath all the snarky irony is a charming sense of realism to the proceedings, the sound of a band who’s determined to enjoy any perks that come their way, but who are definitely aware of how fleeting such fame is. “Into the spotlight/Ecstasy feels so warm inside,” sings Malkmus on the opening track “Silence Kit”, adding drolly, “Till five hours later/I am chewin’/Screwin’/Myself with my hand.”
Lyrically, Malkmus is in peak form, his dryly comical, slightly surreal wordplay still present, but the sensitivity and smarts he displayed on such earlier tracks as “Summer Babe” and “Here” are elevated to a higher level. On the bubbly single “Cut Your Hair”, he mercilessly mocks the importance of image in rock music (“I don’t remember a line/I don’t remember a word/But I don’t care… Did you see the drummer’s hair?”), adding one of the most perceptive lines about the music industry since Elvis Costello’s “Radio Radio”, commenting, “Songs mean a lot when songs are bought/And so are you.” Anti-Southern California sentiment is touched on often, most notably on the two standout tracks “Elevate Me Later” (“Range roving with the cinema stars”) and the vitriolic “Unfair” (“Let’s burn the hills of Beverly”). The deliciously bombastic closing track “Fillmore Jive” has Malkmus bemoaning the predictability of contemporary music, the glut of mediocre bands dominating the airwaves, and the fans who blindly follow their image-conscious heroes, singing, “The jam kids on the vespas/And glum looks on their faces/The street is full of punks/They got spikes/See those rockers with their long curly locks,” the futility of it all becoming too overwhelming, as he adds sarcastically, “Goodnight to the rock and roll era.”
Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain
If there’s one thing Pavement was always best at, it was writing undeniably catchy songs. Even on their earlier recordings, underneath the noise, the obvious The Fall influences, and the lo-fi production, were some very well-crafted tunes, and on Crooked Rain, the improved production and mix clean up the band’s sound, making it seem like the band went for a more commercial sound, when all they did was simplify the compositions. “Gold Soundz” could very well be the perfect Pavement song, the band providing a backdrop of chiming guitars and West’s lithe drumming, and Malkmus stealing the show with his trademark laconic vocal phrasing, spouting lyrics that sound tossed off spontaneously, but possess an endearingly smooth poetic rhythm: “When they rise up in the falling rain/And if you stay around with your knuckles ground down/The trial’s over, the weapon’s found.” The country-tinged “Range Life” cheerfully swipes the melody from Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Lodi” (because Malkmus and Kannberg hailed from nearby Stockton, perhaps?), with some slick guitar licks, not to mention the nice addition of piano, played by mixer Bryce Goggin. Most people will always remember the song for its facetious jabs at Smashing Pumpkins (“I don’t understand what they mean/And I could really give a fuck”) and Stone Temple Pilots (“They deserve absolutely nothing/Nothing more than me”), but what many ignore is the powerful images Malkmus concocts earlier in the song, snapshots of lackadaisical California life, as the second verse is arguably the best lyric he has ever written: “Out on my skateboard the night is just hummin’/And the gumsmacks are the pulse I’ll follow/If my walkman fades then I got/Absolutely no one/No one but myself to blame.”
As great as the album portion of the set is, it’s the rest of the two discs that provide the most fun for longtime fans. The rest of the first CD is comprised of all the band’s B-sides from 1994, and while they don’t quite measure up to the high quality of earlier EP tracks such as “Greenlander”, “Sue Me Jack”, and “Frontwards”, there are still plenty of great moments, like the distorted “Raft”, Kannberg’s “Coolin’ By Sound”, the plaintive “Strings of Nashville”, and the novelty of “5-4 Vocal”, which adds lyrics to Crooked Rain‘s Brubeck-like jazz instrumental.
While The Fall was always the band’s primary influence, the obvious Mark E. Smith rip-offs are toned down greatly on Crooked Rain (save for the brief “Hit the Plane Down”), and as this set shows, it was R.E.M. that seemed to be on the band’s minds during this period. Not only is there the obvious Peter Buck influence on “Gold Soundz” (just listen to that guitar solo), but also the gorgeous, mournful cover of R.E.M.‘s “Camera” (from the Cut Your Hair single), and best of all, the fantastic “Unseen Power of the Picket Fence”, one of the best songs Pavement has ever recorded. Appearing originally on the popular 1994 compilation No Alternative, it’s a heartfelt, snarky, and bizarre tribute; so much so, in fact, that when Michael Stipe first heard it, he couldn’t tell if the band was being sincere or satirical. Over a heavy, rather ornate chord progression, Malkmus sounds dead serious as he describes the band (“The singer, he had long hair/And the drummer he knew restraint”), but also pulls no punches, hilariously declaring at one point, “‘Time After Time’ was my least favorite song!” Malkmus’s devotion goes completely over the top, as he runs through the band’s early history, and concludes with an uproarious fantasy sequence involving a stand-off between Civil War general William Sherman and Georgia natives R.E.M.
The second disc, bearing the typically enigmatic title After the Glow (Where Eagles Dare), is loaded with nuggets that will have fans salivating, consisting completely of previously unreleased material. Eight tracks from an abandoned 1993 session featuring Gary Young on drums is the real treat here, as not only do we get to hear some well-known Pavement tracks in their infancy, but also a bit of an answer to the question that has been on the minds of Pavement devotees for the past decade: would Crooked Rain have been better with Young on drums? Judging from these tracks, no, not really. Granted, the alcohol-fueled Young was rather erratic at the time, so his drumming isn’t exactly his sharpest on these demos, but his forceful, almost primitive beats just don’t suit that particular album’s songs. Steve West has had his share of detractors, and while he was a rather pedestrian drummer during his tenure with Pavement, his style was the one best suited for Crooked Rain. Still, it’s fun to hear Malkmus, Kannberg, and Young work through early versions of such songs as “Range Life”, “Stop Breathing”, and “Elevate Me Later” (titled here as “El Ess Two”). By far the biggest revelation on the entire two-disc set is “All My Friends”, a lively, five minute jam that sounds as good as anything on the album, or for that matter, the 1992 Watery, Domestic EP.
Recorded in August and September 1993, the collection of 13 tracks from the band’s New York rehearsal space features the entire band, with West sitting in this time, shows just how tight a unit they’d become. Previously unheard of compositions, such as the fun “Hands Off the Bayou”, the roaring, cacophonous “Fucking Righteous”, the synth experiment “Colorado”, the effects-laden “Flood Victim”, and the studio goof “Rug Rat” are fine examples of how incredibly prolific and adventurous the band was. Also included is an early version of “Heaven is a Truck”, and “Dark Ages”, the latter of which stumbling along until the unmistakable intro to what would eventually become “Fillmore Jive” surfaces.
In fact, Pavement had amassed such a wealth of new material, that several songs from both sessions made their way to the 1995 follow-up Wowee Zowee. The version of “Flux=Rad”, recorded with a typically crazed Young on drums, benefits from its looser arrangement, and shows that Wowee Zowee might have benefited from Young’s presence. Recorded during the New York sessions, “Grounded” is much more energized than the album version, and much less morose, while “Kennel District” is considerably better than the ‘95 version, possessing a raw energy, not to mention a more forceful vocal performance by Kannberg. “Pueblo (Beach Boys)”, on the other hand, is a very silly trainwreck of an experiment, a failed attempt at Brian Wilson-style harmony vocals, while the much tighter “Pueblo District”, from the 1994 Peel Session, does sound more complete than the one heard on Wowee Zowee.
As for that Peel Session, its four tracks, while very solid, lack the potency of the band’s previous two sessions (included on the Luxe & Reduxe set), but do provide some fascinating moments, like the aforementioned “Pueblo District” and “The Sutcliffe Catering Song”, which would appear on the 1995 Rattled By the Rush single, bearing the title “Easily Fooled”.
What it lacks in classic B-sides and live performances, like the extras on Luxe & Reduxe had, Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain: L.A.‘s Desert Origins more than makes up for it with its sheer wealth of never-before heard recordings. Thanks to “Cut Your Hair” and “Gold Soundz”, Pavement got a taste of the big time in 1994, becoming an unlikely minor hit, both among the alternative rock crowd, and on MTV (the band actually landed a spot on The Tonight Show), but true to their enigmatic nature, they’d go on to pull another fast one on their audience, as Wowee Zowee would prove to be a much more challenging record, eventually alienating those who naively expected a straightforward sequel to Crooked Rain. While that album would prove to have as much lasting power as the first two, Crooked Rain remains both the band’s artistic and commercial peak, as well as American alternative rock’s finest hour; the Britpop phenomenon would completely steal American rock’s thunder for the next several years, and it wouldn’t be until The Flaming Lips’ 1999 classic The Soft Bulletin, that Stateside guitar rock would be rejuvenated. This glorious set is not only a much-deserved tribute to one of the most important albums of the ‘90s, but proof as to how full of life indie rock was at the time, and how much fun the ‘90s truly were.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/041115-pavement/