Counterbalance No. 124 Pavement’s ‘Slanted and Enchanted’

Slanted and Enchanted

Klinger: As I’m sure I’ve mentioned before, a big part of my musical edumacation came about through my involvement with my college radio station. I began as a DJ in the late ’80s and eventually finagled my way into a Program Director position. After college, as I loitered around that cozy little backwater for a few years, I remained tangentially involved through friends and friends of friends, even as I started to chafe at their indie dogmatism. In many ways, college radio was a Bizarro world where popular groups were routinely shunned in favor of the willfully obscure, and so it came to be in my mind that for a brief period, Pavement was just about the biggest band around.

“Summer Babe” was a regular feature on the air and at radio geek gatherings, and its subtle groove and laid-back slackery all but scream 1992 to me. So given my rich Bizarro heritage, I’m not especially surprised to see Pavement making an appearance at this point on the Great List (although I am surprised it’s Slanted and Enchanted and not Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, which I recall everyone liking a lot better).

However, your frame of reference is a good bit different, Mendelsohn, so your mileage likely varies. Yes?

Mendelsohn: It does. But my frame of reference is shifted down the line by ten years or so and that makes it hard to put certain indie records form the early 1990s, like Pavement’s Slanted and Enchanted, into proper context. Here’s my problem. I’m part of a lost generation—the one that came of age in the mid-1990s that was too young for Generation X, too young to fully understand the slacker attitude, irony, and nihilism, but too old and slightly jaded to fit in with the Millennials and their burgeoning fixation on technology and guarded optimism for the 21st century.

Listening to Pavement always reminds me of being a teenager and hanging out with my buddy who had an older brother who was a complete slacker dick. He would never share his beer, wouldn’t help us get any of our own, and tried really hard to make sure we knew he didn’t care what we thought. Every atonal guitar blast on Slanted and Enchanted comes off the same way—too cool for school. Yeah, we’re in a band. So what? Listen to us shred these licks and link together some loose melody and grooves. Don’t like it? Whatever. It must be way above you or too far beneath you. You figure it out.

I always wanted to tell my friend’s brother to get over himself. I have a similar reaction to this record. But then, we would have never gotten a ride to the mall, and the indie rock I loved in the next decade would probably not be as good. I would like you to believe that I’m a little conflicted about my standing judgment of this record, but the fact remains, my buddy’s brother is still a dick and I don’t particularly like Slanted and Enchanted.

Klinger: Well yes, I could see where that would be frustrating. But what I’m hearing in Slanted and Enchanted is an album that’s steeped in its own very specific, and very different, rock tradition. Stephen Malkmus and Scott “Spiral Stairs” Kannberg come across as two guys who had come up influenced less by the Beatles, the Stones, and Dylan than by Sonic Youth, Camper Van Beethoven, and the Fall. And that’s an interesting thing about that point in rock history—a new generation was coming into place, one for whom punk/post-punk/college rock was already established. These guys were 11 when Never Mind the Bollocks came out. Pavement wasn’t reacting to the tidal wave of the ’70s; they were already swimming in its aftermath.

So when I hear a song like “Two States”, which is really a Fall song by any other name, or the spoken word stylings in “Fame Throwa” that harken back to everything from Camper Van Beethoven’s “The History of Utah” to the Velvet Underground’s “Murder Mystery”, I sense that this is a pivotal point where a through-line of what was to become alternative music becomes more firmly entrenched.

Mendelsohn: Yeah, that sounds great and all but I’m not buying it. Couldn’t we apply to the same argument to bands like Nirvana or the Pixies, who arguably did more to cement the legacy of alternative music after they waded out of the wreckage of the ’70s tidal wave and the cesspool that was the ’80s? Maybe I’m so thoroughly unimpressed because almost every half-way coherent indie rock album from the last two decades sounds like Slanted and Enchanted—nothing but loose grooves and half-shouted vocals over jangly guitar and feedback. Is there something more to this record or is Slanted and Enchanted just a critic’s darling that is hanging around outside the Top 100 and acting as a place holder on the list for early 1990s indie rock? Am I wrong in thinking that this record is going to drop down the list once the sway of Generation X is usurped by the Millennials?

Klinger: Of course the same argument can be made for the Pixies and Nirvana, which is why we’ve already covered two Pixies albums and got to Nirvana the first month we started this Counterbalance project (and we have another one coming up before you know it). And of course it’s a critic’s darling—the Great List that gives us our marching orders is, after all, a compilation of critical opinion fully mathematized for our consumption.

And really, you can say the same thing about all of the groups we’ve mentioned so far—they’ve all taken noise and transformed it into pop. No matter what level of feedbackery and shoutiness they may employ, underneath it all there’s usually a well-crafted bit of songwriting underneath. Lesser groups (which are plentiful, and I’m not naming names) might use atonality for its own sake, but in my mind that’s what ultimately separates the wheat from the chaff. With Pavement, I hear a commitment to the song above all in “Trigger Cut” (is it just my imagination or does that song sound like Malkmus might have written it while trying to pick out the chords to Jim Croce’s “Operator”?) the incandescent “Here”, which comes as close as anyone did to summing up the ’90s ethos with its first two lines (“I was dressed for success / But success it never comes”).

Mendelsohn: Let me try this again. We can apply the same argument to Nirvana and the Pixies but in my mind, these two bands understood the task of songcraft a bit better than Pavement. There is a certain je ne sais quoi that both Nirvana and the Pixies possessed that I do not hear in Pavement. Malkmus and his crew can write decent material, most notably the off-kilter pop of “Zurich Is Stained” and the hyper-rock of “Jackals, False Grails: The Lonesome Era”, but I get the feeling that Pavement’s atonal ramblings are just off-putting enough and generically alternative to keep the general public away from their records. And I’m intoning the label of “critic’s darling” in the pejorative sense. Yes, everything on the Great List is here because of its critical appeal but some albums, like Slanted and Enchanted, appeal to only a certain set of people, the critics, while other albums, like, I don’t know, Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, appeals to everyone while still retaining the critical cachet. If you want to keep this in the parlance of early ’90s alternative rock we could look at it like this: Nirvana appealed to everyone, the Pixies appealed to people with good taste in music, and Pavement was for the people who needed to take it that extra step, just so they could listen to something that no one else was going to really enjoy. And I think that extra step is a step too far when it comes to inclusion on the Great List.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe Slanted and Enchanted will slowly morph into the next generation’s underground cultural touchstone like some sort of Velvet Underground, and Malkmus will grow into a curmudgeonly old songwriter who releases weird poetry albums and cuts tracks with Metallica. I don’t know. This album just doesn’t sit right with me, at least not at this point on the Great List.

Klinger: OK, I see where you’re coming from, although the 1990s indie-rock dogmatists would tell you that Nirvana wasn’t really “alternative” since they were signed to DGC and had loads of hits. At the same time, it’s important to note that Pavement were the beneficiaries of what came to be known very soon after as “buzz”. The group released a series of EPs that garnered a considerable amount of critical attention, getting reviewed by Spin and even making their way into the Village Voice Pazz & Jop (a phrase that makes me a little queasy every time I type it) poll. In that sense, you could argue that they were highly influential, even if they never quite got the same level of commercial success that later recipients of the Buzz Band status would. Then again, because they can be seen as pioneers, it’s not likely that they will see their critic’s darling veneer tarnished anytime soon. I declare their positioning at this point in the Great List to be apt. Apt!

Mendelsohn: Apt or not, I’m willing to wait a couple more years to see what happens.