A special new band

Strongest album: Slanted and Enchanted
Weakest album: Brighten the Corners

The most influential band of the '90s? Well, it's really too early to call, but Pavement are as likely a candidate as any. Like most highly influential bands, they are responsible for a lot of third-rate clones spewing unlistenable junk, and since we are smack in the middle of their era of influence you're probably very sick of hearing their brand of slacker post-post-punk indie rock being played by ten thousand college dropout bands throughout America. But hey, don't let all those mediocre bands writ up as the second coming in the AP Press get you down, or make you want to blame Pavement, because aside from being true originals, these North California record nerds released some very fine, even great, records. Like a lot of originals, what Pavement did seems so simple in retrospect that you have to remind yourself that what's right in front of your nose is only obvious after it's been pointed out to you: They made the Fall pop. Okay, that's a little too simplistic, but essentially that's the foundation of all that Pavement have accomplished: they took this repetitive, lo-fi (a term you hear a lot and don't have to understand a lot about music to understand what it means: deliberately recorded shittily), loping guitar'n'drums noise and sprinkled hooks and melodies on top. Another way to describe it is indie punk slowed way down (though Pavement do have their faster numbers). Pavement didn't reinvent the wheel, but they did change the tires to gain considerable more mileage for guitar rock. Pavement were also one of the first bands to perform "meta-rock", a highly self-conscious, self-referential way of saying, "Hey, I'm in a rock'n'roll band! And look at all the history of rock'n'roll! Isn't pop music neat?" In that vein, I ought to mention Sonic Youth, the Pixies, Swell Maps, and a bunch of other bands Pavement are influenced by. A decade from now some new band will come along and make smirking references to that old classic rock band Pavement, and some critic will make too big a deal out of it - just you wait.

Pavement - Site Specific looks like a pretty good place to start for finding more fan info and web pages on the slacker kings of alt-rock.

Westing (By Musket and Sextant) (1993)

Before their debut album, Pavement released several EP's: 1989's Slay Tracks: (1933-1969), 1990's Demolition Plot J-7, and 1991's Perfect Sound Forever. All of those EP's are compiled on this disc. While formative, most of these early efforts are pretty good, and there's a lot of radio static all over the place. As a bonus, there's an homage to R.E.M. that speaks for all of us: "Time After Time" is our least favorite song! I've sat down and listened to this all the way through over at friends' but since I don't actually own a copy of my own, I can't really review it.

Slanted and Enchanted (1992) ****1/2

This one got them some attention; the pre-release bootleg was actually voted album of the year by the Village Voice, which shows you how hot the critics were for this special new band. So when I got my hands on a copy way back in the early '90s I kind of felt let down, 'cause the record didn't change my life or the way I heard music or anything. But I only felt let down because there's no way any band could have possibly lived up to the claims critics made for Pavement, and this record's a classic. Imagine if you will that you're a teenager in Desertville U.S.A. and you're tuning in to the radio to hear the outside world, and through the static you hear this great band on this far away radio station, and you keep trying to tune in to the band, but the station's slightly out of range and the sound comes through all crackly and crinkly and you've got one hand on the knob and the other on the antenna, desperately trying to keep the station tuned in. That's what this record sounds like. The off-kilter production and primitivism keeps this record from ever sounding conventional, and keeps it consistently interesting. Over the course of time we have grown used to this sound and this record today sounds pretty normal, but put yourself in an early '90s frame of mind and imagine how alien this must have sounded. I had to, and I was there!- it just goes to show you how all-pervasive their sound has become. However, for such a classic, I wish it were more consistent: several of these songs are pretty dull. I could do without the wannabe anthem of North California seperatism (actually I could do without all of Pavement's wannabe anthems. It's not their forte). "Our Singer", "Zurich Is Stained", etc., are throwaways that you barely notice. The opener, "Summer Babe" is a lame attempt at material that's a mite too poppy for Pavement to do well. Okay, those are the songs I don't like - now let's get to the ones I do. "Lies and betrayals...fruit-covered nails...Eee-lectricity and lust" - don't have a clue what they're talking about, and neither do Pavement I bet, but those are some of my favorite opening lines ever! "Tricks are everything to me" is the line everybody quotes from this disc, but what makes the album work are the melodies: Steve Malkmus even goes "la-la-la-la-la" at one point, which you're only supposed to do when your material's really melodic. "No Life Singed" is one of their full-throttle numbers, which are usually pretty tuneless, but this one's as hummable as anything surrounding it. "In the Mouth a Desert" might be my favorite tune - this one has "du-du-du-du-du's", and "I've been crowned king of it" doesn't come across as arrogant, because what's "it"? "Perfume-V" has forward drive and a girl keeping the radio active (hey, a cheap pun! Is Elvis Costello a key influence, too?). The last great song on the record is "Fame Throwa", which has several false endings, and you're glad every time it starts up again. The next two songs I don't care for. If this album were a tad more consistent, I'd gladly nudge it a half star up and give it my highest rating, but it's got a few too many throways.

Watery, Domestic EP (1993) *****

I don't understand why critics hate this EP so much; it doesn't sound radically different from Slanted and Enchanted, and get this - all four of the songs are good! The only thing close to a throwaway is "Lions (Linden)", but it's not. The other three songs are classics, possessing Pavement's strongest ever melodies. When I was a campus DJ, I put this release by this band I'd never heard before in the CD player and started airing the opening track, "Texas Never Whispers". Halfway through the song, the DJ who did the heavy metal show was humming along with this sweet grin on his face. I said to him, "Oh, you've heard this before?" "No. Who are these guys?" was his reply. And he was a METAL GUY! To this day "Texas Never Whispers", the first song I ever heard by Pavement, is my favorite Pavement song. The song everybody else remembers from this release is "Frontwards" because of the line, "I've got style/Miles and miles/So much style that it's wasted...."

Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain (1993) ****

This one was their biggest selling album, thanks to record company hype and the MTV hit "Cut Your Hair", an anomaly among Pavement songs because a)it was a hit, b)it's pure pop that goes down smooth, and c)it's a wannabe anthem that's actually good. Yeah, it's my favorite thing on this album, and for a while the only song I pushed repeat for; back in '93, this came as a bit of a letdown. Pavement have made several strides away from their trademark buzzy lo-fi rock for a somewhat more accessible approach (though the grooves are still gratifyingly a pleasurable mess), but that's not the problem. The problems are a)they fired drummer Gary Young, whose drunkenly slapping dead fish on cardboard style is sorely missed, and b)the hooks are noticably absent. However, this one grew on me, as you can tell from my high grade. It turns out that Pavement are doing what Pavement did the last time - burying the hooks and melodies underneath, behind, and sideways around off kilter production and elliptical song structures. It's just that it took me a little longer to get used to the approach on this album. Head honcho Steve Malkmus is writing slower, quieter songs this time out, indulging in some country rock on the masterful Neil Young-style "Range Life", in which his voice cracks and strains hilariously awfully while he takes potshots at the deserving targets Smashing Pumpkins and Stone Temple Pilots. Of course, Malkmus later stated in an interview that he was singing in the voice of a character who wasn't he - oh right, the bane of the '90s, irony. Just like STP singing a slobbering date rape fantasy and turning around and calling it "irony" - you know, you can get away with saying anything you want by invoking that word. Of all bands Pavement are way too dependent on this device - "Fillmore Jive", uh-huh. If rock criticism didn't exist, Pavement would have to invent it: "5-4=Unity" affectionately nods to Dave Brubeck, except that Pavement seem to be falling apart - but not really. I think. You know, this irony stuff can get out of hand. I don't think even Pavement realize whether or not they're sincere or not.

Wowee Zowee (1995) ***1/2

This is where the backlash begins. Critics panned this album, and consumers stayed away, thereby allowing Pavement to abandon all hopes of crossover mainstream success and slink back to the underground where they felt happier and more comfortable. It's easy to see why: this album can be tough to sit still for. It's not just that Pavement have incrementally slowed down the pace, but more the sheer bulk of the record: 18 songs. 18 songs! Do we want to sit still for 18 songs from anybody? Like most albums of this length, it has the advantage of added stylistic breadth, and the distinct disadvantage of highly inconsistent material. Starts off uncharacteristically with the Big Star balladry of "We Dance", and winds its way through catchy anthems ("Rattled By The Rush") and terribly uncatchy anthems (the complete mistake "Fight This Generation" - the worst of all Pavement wannabe anthems). Quite a bit of this falls flat - the Fall-style "Brinx Job" with Malkmus' lame sub-Brainiac vocals sounds forced, and the faster, noisier numbers (mostly the fault of Scott Kannberg) are tuneless aberrations that disrupt the flow. However, digging for the better numbers is worth it, and after a few listens you start to notice a Western motif creeping up, with this dusty-windy slow mood numbers that recreate the feel of a dry Arizona day. Oh, and the titles of the last three songs are a dead giveaway - "Pueblo", "Half a Canyon", "Western Homes". A concept album? Maybe these guys are art-rockers at heart after all.... Overall, an A for effort, a C+ or B- for execution. Since I appreciate bands taking chances and forging into the unknown, I'm being lenient by assigning this album the grade I gave it above (which roughly translates into a B+).

Brighten the Corners (1997) ***

Now this is where the decline really sets in. You could excuse the weaknesses of Wowee Zowee by calling it transitional and a bold experiment in style. This album, however, has both a serious lack of hookcraft and is a retread of old ideas that breaks no new ground. The slow songs here are simply boring, except for the pretty "Shady Lane", Malkmus' first date song. A roundabout Raspberries alusion on "Stereo" handily saves that song, but the part about Geddy Lee is as annoying as Rush. "We Are The Underused" continues the dishonorable Pavement tradition of terrible wannabe anthems. "Embassy Row" rocks, and works, with smart and tasty snipes at the Village Voice ("I'm sick of being misread/By men in dashikis/With their leftist weeklies") and when Malkmus screams "I'm going to take the crown" he purposely makes it sound at times like "I'm going to take a crap". All in all, it's not a bad album - if you see it fairly cheap or are a fan, then this will do. However, Pavement aren't doing anything they haven't done better before. Oddly enough, it seems that the most (questionably) original band of the '90s has run out of ideas.

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