Living in a small town in Western Canada in the late '80s and early '90s, it wasn't exactly easy to keep up with American indie rock. Local record stores had paltry selections, there was no college radio station, and if you did manage to find an album from a small independent label like Matador in a bigger city, you were forced to pay nearly double the price for an imported copy. So basically, you were stuck reading music magazines, wondering what on earth those bands those publications were raving about sounded like. It was especially annoying when a certain homemade album by some California slackers was named one magazine's album of the year, yet there was no chance of ever hearing it.
Slowly, indie rock made its way to where I lived, thanks to CBC FM radio, which was available only on cable. It was a fantastic time for the network, as late night programs like Brave New Waves and Nightlines exposed hicks like yours truly to a whole other world of contemporary rock music. After a year of listening nearly every night, studiously making cassettes of the best stuff they played, I became obsessed with Pavement, collecting radio recordings of obscure songs like "Box Elder", "Frontwards", "Debris Slide", and "Greenlander", eventually purchasing horrendously overpriced import copies of 1992's Slanted & Enchanted and the then-brand new Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain. Pavement sounded like no other band I had ever heard: they were incredibly sloppy, yet somehow cohesive, catchy, humorous, oddly poetic, and completely charming. The more mature, more professionally-produced Crooked Rain became an instant favorite of mine, but it was Slanted & Enchanted that fared much better in the long run, and today, that debut album is the one I greatly prefer.
Formed in 1989 by Stockton, California friends Steven Malkmus and Scott Kannberg, and employing the drumming services of 40 year-old ex-hippie Gary Young, who conveniently happened to have a recording studio in his home, Pavement released several enigmatic EPs and singles (including the brilliantly titled Perfect Sound Forever) before recording Slanted & Enchanted in 1991. By then the trio had taken on two new members: percussionist Bob Nastanovich, and bassist Mark Ibold, but the album was recorded without them, as Malkmus and Kannberg (operating under the aliases "S.M." and "Spiral Stairs"), as well as Young, pieced the record together on their own. The album that emerged became legendary even before it was released, as critics swooned over bootleg cassette recordings, and a decade later, it still sounds as fresh, original, and certifiably insane as it did when college rock fans first heard it.
No album title from the '90s describes its sound so perfectly as this album. As grunge began to become oversaturated in 1992, Slanted & Enchanted offered a lackadaisical, sunny, Northern California alternative to all the heroin-drenched misery of Alice in Chains and Stone Temple Pilots, helping to initiate the "lo-fi" trend of the early '90s, which would be continued in subsequent years by the likes of Sebadoh, Beck, Guided By Voices, and Liz Phair. Recorded over a couple weeks at Young's home studio, with Kannberg playing bass lines on a tuned-down guitar through a bass amp, it might seem on the surface an amateurish, cacophonous recording, but amidst the hodgepodge are some superbly constructed, albeit idiosyncratic pop songs. Unlike the often impenetrable, artsy noise rock of Sonic Youth, Slanted & Enchanted is actually fun: it's noise you can hum along to.
The opening track alone is a knockout. "Summer Babe" starts off innocuously, with distorted, Dinosaur Jr. style guitars and Young's pounding drumming (punctuated by a little hi-hat flourish after every two bars). Any notion of this being just another indie rock song is thrown out the window when Malkmus delivers his unforgettable first verse: "Ice baby / I saw your girlfriend / She's eating her fingers like they're just another meal / She waits there / In the levee wash / Mixing cocktails with a plastic-tipped cigar." This isn't just pretentious gibberish. A brilliant bit of surrealist poetry that bears a slight similarity to West Coast poets Lew Welch and Bob Kaufman, Malkmus depicts a scene of summertime ennui and longing that sticks in your head immediately. Kannberg's solos are sloppy, but mellifluous, as the song builds to the climactic chorus of "Every time I sit around I find I'm shocked." It's the ultimate slacker love song.
The hooks on the rest of the album are plentiful, as are the oblique lyrics of Malkmus, which are often ridiculously obscure. The fabulous "Trigger Cut" contains whimsical wordplay ("Lies and betrayals / Fruit-covered nails / Eeeee-lectricity and lust") and a simple, yet contagious melody, complete with a fantastic break of "sha la la" falsetto vocals. The befuddling, Sonic Youth-ish "No Life Has Singed Her" has Malkmus intentionally garbling the words in the chorus (singing "No life for Ginger"), "In the Mouth a Desert" features a great guitar melody that breaks into a gorgeous solo at the end, not to mention a rare impassioned moment from Malkmus ("I've been crowned, the king of it / And it is all we have so wait / To hear my words and / They're diamond sharp"), while "Zurich is Stained" boasts more of a breezy, country feel. "Loretta's Scars", the noise-drenched "Perfume-V", and the exhausted-sounding "Our Singer" (featuring Malkmus's great vocal delivery in the opening line, "I've been waiting / An-tiss-ipating") sustain the momentum for the rest of the album, but it climaxes on the stunning ballad "Here". Opening with the classic lines, "I was dressed for success / But success it never comes," it perfectly encapsulates the plight of directionless, twentysomething Generation X-ers wondering what to do with their lives, but Malkmus then delves into more esoteric poetry, seemingly spewing words that just happen to sound good with the song's plaintive melody: "And all the sterile striking it / Defends an empty dock you cast away." It's a beautiful mess of a song.
Malkmus and Kannberg may have been the driving creative forces behind the band, but Gary Young was their secret weapon. Pounding away relentlessly on the kit like the muppet Animal, Young has two settings: stop, and go. His fluid, often overly powerful drumming sometimes comes close to overwhelming the songs (just listen to those cymbal crashes near the end of "Summer Babe"), but his playful style works perfectly with the other two members, as his distinctive fills help set this album apart anything else you'll ever hear. Young would go on to record the Watery, Domestic EP in 1992, but by the end of the year, his erratic behavior would force his bandmates to replace him with the more skilled, yet duller Steve West. As a result, the four albums that followed would lack the relaxed, goofy charm of the first record.
In "Conduit for Sale", a song obviously inspired by his hero Mark E. Smith of the Fall, Malkmus hollers stream of consciousness lines, screaming "I'm trying!" 16 times in a row, and facetiously mispronounces the word "scion", but in the middle of this mess hides a line that epitomizes what Pavement was all about: "Between here and there is better than either here or there!" On Slanted & Enchanted, Pavement lurked in the fringes, swiping sounds and hooks from myriad styles, doing things their own way; they refused to be categorized, and that quality is what makes the album still sound strong today. The glorious 2002 re-issue Slanted & Enchanted: Luxe & Reduxe, with its wealth of rarities and live performances, hammers home just how great this album was, a perfect introduction for curious younger listeners. Every bit as important and influential as two other albums from the same time period, Nirvana's Nevermind and My Bloody Valentine's Loveless, it's the definitive sound of '90s indie rock.