While ambivalently shoddy production values have been part and parcel of independent recording since the dawn of the 4-track, Pavement was the first band to explicitly equate the medium with the message, thereby precipitating the lo-fi revolution that agitated the indie world in the early ’90s. Yes, cellar-dwelling auteurs existed before these Stockton, California savants jerry-rigged their first distortion boxes, but few waved their Luddite flags so proudly as to list items like “would-be sonorous SG tripe” among their inventory of instruments.
Using the shadowy pseudonyms S.M. and Spiral Stairs, pals Stephen Malkmus and Scott Kannberg recorded and released the striking, scree-encrusted Slay Tracks 1933-1969 on a whim. Although only a scant handful of copies were pressed, a striking number fell into the right hands, including those of influential British DJ John Peel and at least one member of the Wedding Present, who had a minor British hit with a cover of the EP’s most accessible song, the high lonesome “Box Elder.” By the time the pair reconvened to record the blatantly Swell Maps-inspired Demolition Plot J-7, they’d been persuaded to let Gary Young (a 40-something New Yorker who ran the local studio they favored) contribute drum tracks to songs like “Perfect Depth,” dispatching them on the perilous path to “real” bandhood. Although still relatively amorphous, the two members’ individual proclivities — Kannberg is a diehard Fall worshiper, Malkmus a covert bubblegum buff who hides his sweets under a blanket of feedback — had started to emerge.
Like its predecessors, Perfect Sound Forever was built in a day (making those comments about Rome seem pretty silly in retrospect), but even so, this seven-song 10-inch can’t be described more aptly than in its flippant title. A sort of holy grail for the indie-rock underground’s true believers, Perfect Sound Forever concentrates years of over-education, outcast status and record collecting geekdom into one remarkably heady quaff of brew. Even as it set up its own rules, though, the disc succeeds on mainstream terms: it’s got the mock-heroic instrumental intro (“Heckler Spray”), the chantalong crowd unifier (“From Now On”) and the epic (“Angel Carver Blues/Mellow Jazz Docent”). You’d be hard pressed to find a single molecule of Perfect Sound Forever that wasn’t cloned by some aspiring noise-pop band in the ’90s. All three of the above releases — along with a handful of subsequent compilation tracks, including the spunky “Baptiss Blacktick” and the 1991 7-inch of “Summer Babe” — are compiled on Westing (by Musket and Sextant).
By this time, Malkmus and Kannberg had recruited a few friends to flesh out a live incarnation of Pavement. Besides the aforementioned Young (whose onstage antics — like handstands, audience baiting and formidable vodka drinking — became as important as his drumming), the bi-coastal band now included bassist Mark Ibold (plucked from the ranks of New York’s Dustdevils) and percussionist Bob Nastanovich (coaxed away from Kentucky’s horse-racing circuit). Slanted and Enchanted, the quintet’s first recording, revealed the indie world’s secret to the larger universe: From the initial notes of “Summer Babe” (which introduced the band’s patent-worthy cotton-candy harmonies into the mix for the first time), it was evident that the times were a-changin’. Oh sure, songs like “Trigger Cut” and “Zurich Is Stained” make more sense if you’re at least moderately grounded in semiotics, but even elliptical lyrics can’t hamper enjoyment of a melody as naggingly insistent (if off-kilter) as “Chesley’s Little Wrists.” A must-own. On the album’s tenth anniversary in 2002, Matador issued the two-CD Slanted & Enchanted: Luxe & Reduxe, a mighty remastered testimony to the seminal album’s enduring legacy. Tacked on to the original 14 cuts are a whopping 34 additional tracks, including the entirety of the Watery, Domestic EP, a complete 1992 concert recording, two legendary (and arguably essential) John Peel sessions, plus a wealth of singles, compilation tracks and outtakes (chief among them “Greenlander,” the “Trigger Cut” B-sides, and the infamous alternate take of “Here”).
While Pavement is nothing if not prolific, the band’s deep slacker vibe makes for some downright lazy releases — like the time-filling Watery, Domestic. Cleverly ensconced in a graffiti-scratched rooster sleeve recycled from a thrift store perennial LP by the band Ambergris (not, as some guessed, Atomic Rooster), the four songs inside are decidedly half-baked. Young’s semi-acrimonious departure kept the band in limbo for a while; eventually, transplanted Virginian Steve West was named as his replacement.
True to form, Pavement rebounded with Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, a pointedly self-referential album that often seems to address nothing other than itself, as evidenced by the cradle-to-the-oldies-circuit allegory “Cut Your Hair,” which follows Anyband from musician wanted ads (“no big hair!”) to the big time (“tension and fear…a career…”). The countryfied “Range Life” is a little more pointed in its rock-as-rock-criticism, deflating blustery targets like Smashing Pumpkins and Stone Temple Pilots with deadpan precision. Malkmus keeps a snug hold on the reins, ceding Kannberg only the Mark E. Smith soundalike “Hit the Plane Down.” But with its languid humor (“5-4=Unity” rewrites Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five”) and easygoing melodicism (in full effect on such instant charmers as “Silence Kid” and “Gold Soundz”), Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain makes a damn fine case for dictatorship. The Gold Soundz and Range Life EPs (as well as the following year’s Rattled by la Rush, built around a Wowee Zowee item) append their respective title tracks with a passel of vague non-LP songs (aside from Gold Soundz‘ intriguing “Strings of Nashville”) meant only for completists.
Wowee Zowee, completed with unusual dispatch, seems like a bit of a rush job. Despite some uncommonly clear-cut playing — songs like “Motion Suggests” and the jazzy “Grave Architecture” go from point A to point B without so much as a stopover at point Z — there’s a palpable lack of enthusiasm. “Fight This Generation,” a wannabe anthem (or parody thereof?), falls as flat as any of the boneheads lampooned on the band’s previous releases; even Kannberg seems detached when squalling through “Brinx Job.” Over the years, the album’s messy charm has earned its share of acolytes (helpful hint: bands that wear Wowee Zowee on their sleeves are easily spotted because they open their albums with a quirky ballad, à la “We Dance”), but at the time it seemed a recharge had better be in the offing. The Domino reissue, subtitled Sordid Sentinels Edition, is a real extravaganza, expanding the original album to two discs with a booklet and a total of 50 tracks, 18 of them previously unreleased outtakes or live recordings and many others from non-album B-sides and compilations.
After teasing fans with the brief, lovably daffy oddity Pacific Trim, more than a year transpired before Pavement’s next full-length. It proved worth the wait. Brighten the Corners is a much more refined and unified effort, thanks in part to producer Mitch Easter, who helped the band locate their inner R.E.M. Malkmus is at his most playful and alliterate on the lead single “Stereo” and “Starlings of the Slipstream” (which includes the couplet “the language of influence is cluttered with hard c’s/I put a spycam in a sorority”), and Kannberg supplies two of his catchiest tunes, the yuppie anthems “Date With Ikea” and “Passat Dream.” The earnest “Shady Lane” was a dubious — but ultimately inspired — choice for a follow-up single, and the Shady Lane EP, combining tracks from two import singles, stands as one of Pavement’s most delirious, fully realized short-players, with its cow-poked version of “Type Slowly,” the “wo-wo-whoa” new wave lounge lizardry of “Cherry Area,” the punky dilettantism of “Wanna Mess You Around” and the irresistibly jaunty “No Tan Lines.” Miraculously, Pavement finally seemed like a real rock band — quite a feat for a couple of guys who never intended as much, and had continued to be challenged by their stubborn geographical separation.
On Terror Twilight, Pavement’s swan song, the strain of the band’s long-distance setup was patently evident. With Malkmus working up most of the songs himself (and nary a Kannberg contribution), there is less of an overall group presence, except on the gleeful “Carrot Rope.” Slick production by Nigel Godrich (Radiohead) also helps to make Terror Twilight Pavement’s least spontaneous-sounding record, but adds some austere atmospheric texture, particularly on the art-rock jam “The Hexx.” Despite its flaws, Terror Twilight is a classy concluding point for Pavement, adding a few bona fide classics to the canon, and allowing the excuse for one final tour before officially calling it quits.
The Spit on a Stranger EP is as unwashed as Terror Twilight is polished, but offers nothing worthy of keeping aside from the shuffling outlaw boy blues of “Roll With the Wind.” The Major Leagues EP offers a smattering of older tracks: two Gary Young-era leftovers, a pair of cover tunes from a 1997 BBC session and a handful of Malkmus demos which pointed confidently toward the singer’s impending solo career.
There’s a telling moment during a concert on Pavement’s final tour (captured for posterity on a Matador DVD, Slow Century) when Malkmus directs the audience to a pair of handcuffs dangling from his mic stand and remarks offhandedly that the stage prop symbolizes what it’s like to be in a band. Odd, then, that Malkmus insisted his next project after Pavement’s dissolution was not in fact a solo venture, but another band, the Jicks (bassist Joanna Bolme and drummer John Moen; keyboardist Mike Clark was added later). Regardless, Matador released the debut under the singer’s name only. Onstage, the Jicks gave Malkmus the chance to fulfill his inner guitar hero fantasies, but on Stephen Malkmus, it’s all about great, catchy songcraft. The desultory vignettes bounce and bump, with an endearing emphasis on sentimentality in songs like “Church on White” and the perfect, shimmering single “Jenny and the Ess-Dog” (a look back at an unlikely hippie romance, as seen through the eyes of the couple’s dog Trey). Most of the songs have a comfy, fluffy feel, but also just enough of a cracked edge to balance the scales.
If the self-titled debut allowed Malkmus to exorcise some of his pent-up pop demons, then Pig Lib is his classic rock album — or would be, were it not so claustrophobic. The monkey-grinding “Water and a Seat” opens things with a paranoid Floyd-ish “hello” — is there anybody in/out there? “Vanessa From Queens” bops fancifully, and “Witch Mountain Bridge” wanks unabashedly, but the real centerpiece is the grandiose live fave “1% of One.” Unfortunately, some of the best songs were relegated to a limited edition bonus disc. But for patient listeners up to the challenge of repeated hearings, there are still plenty of rewards to be found within the mystifying nuances of Pig Lib.
Kannberg, meanwhile, formed Preston School of Industry with Jon Erickson and Andrew Borger of Moore Brothers, releasing the Goodbye to the Edge City EP on his own Amazing Grease Records in early 2001. The five songs are half-baked, with few stylistic surprises aside from the horn section and children’s backing vocals that grace the goofy “Something Always Happens.” All This Sounds Gas, the band’s full-length debut, is a mixed bag of laid-back country (“A Treasure @ Silver Bank”), scorching rock (“History of the River”), epic prog (the eight minute-long “Encyclopedic Knowledge Of”) and singalong dreampop (“Falling Away,” which nicks its opening guitar from The Cure’s “Just Like Heaven”). Credit should be given to Kannberg for the album’s variety, but after throwing so many disparate sounds at the wall of his audience, it’s no surprise that “Whalebones” (the most Pavement-sounding of the tracks) is about the only thing that stuck. 2004 brought Monsoon season, and the psychedelic confection of “Get Your Crayons Out!”
After his firing from Pavement, Young returned to the studio and conceived the righteously freaky — and fittingly titled — Hospital, which is also the name of his band. Reminiscent of nothing so much as the work of the legendary Wild Man Fischer, the album finds Young unraveling stream-of-consciousness yarns in an altogether unlistenable voice. It’s good-natured enough — his songs rarely address anything more contentious than the wacky characters buzzing around his cranium — but in no way essential.