Pavement

Westing (By Musket And Sextant)
Slanted and Enchanted
Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain
Wowee Zowee
Brighten The Corners
Terror Twilight


Westing (By Musket And Sextant) (Drag City ’93) Rating: B
A must-have for big fans of the band and completists, this generous compilation contains the EPs (Slay Tracks 1933, 1969, Demolition Plot J-7, and Perfect Sound Forever) and singles that garnered this band’s initial big buzz. The first EP shows the band in their infancy and features fast punk ditties, on which the lyrics are often inaudible amid the tape hiss and fuzzy guitars. Still, the catchy pop of “Box Elder” shows a glimpse of their future greatness, with their patented ringing guitars and Stephen Malkmus’ smooth vocals (as opposed to his annoying vocals) and snide lyrics (“I’ve got a lot of good things coming my way, and I’m afraid to say you’re not one of them”) to the fore. The band (at this point only Malkmus and Scott “Spiral Stairs” Kannberg) starts to hone their songwriting skills the rest of the way, and though they don’t scale the heights of their subsequent full-length releases, these EPs have their moments (“Debris Slide,” for instance). These aren’t as sustained or as memorable as their best work, however, especially since some of these “songs” are mere sound snippets; these 23 songs fly by and blur together in under an hour. Yet these decidedly “lo-fi” recordings (drummer Gary Young joins the duo on Perfect Sound Forever, giving them a more full bodied sound) are engagingly amateurish, and are enjoyable beyond merely presenting a great band’s humble beginnings. This is because, despite being a fledgling combo just starting out and messing about, Pavement’s knack for imaginative guitar figures is already obvious, and some majestic melodies occasionally manage to soar above the lo-fi mayhem. In addition, though this collection contains a fair number of throwaways, it also shows off a rawer, more rocking side to the band than any of their subsequent work. Lovers of sloppy guitar sounds should find much to embrace here, but it’s hard not to notice that this collection's best song is “Summer Baby;” an improved version of this song also leads off Slanted and Enchanted, where the distinctive Pavement sound fully flowered.

Slanted and Enchanted (Matador ‘92) Rating: A
This album was an instant indie classic, and Pavement became critic’s darlings upon its release. Recorded primitively, these songs are all the better for it, since their inspired off-kilter tunings and angular guitar lines drenched in static weren’t meant to be smoothed out. Where Pavement differs from their influences (including the The Velvet Underground, Sonic Youth, and especially the Fall – group leader Stephen Malkmus himself called this “a lo-fi Fall rip-off album,” though personally I far prefer Pavement to The Fall) is that in addition to harsh guitars most of this album also delivers joyously catchy pop tunes with superbly hummable melodies. It’s also a great guitar record, as superb songs such as “Summer Babe (Winter Version)” and “In The Mouth A Desert” prove, only the guitar heroics sound (purposely) as if they were recorded on the wrong frequency. Alternately noisy and relaxed, Pavement rarely rely on standard song structures, and they offer plenty of twists and turns along the way. For example, “Trigger Cut” (arguably the album’s best song) introduces suddenly unexpected “sha la la” harmonies before a surprisingly noisy guitar coda ends what had been a melodic marvel. Granted, the critics were too busy drooling over the album to ever bother mentioning that it has some filler, or that Malkmus’ vocals can be pretty obnoxious at times. However, the overall groove of this album is so enjoyable that these minor flaws are easily overlooked, especially since the band is also capable of pretty moments (“Zurich Is Stained,” “Here”) that offset lesser noisy numbers like “Chesley’s Little Wrists” and “Flame Throwa.” Other highlights include “Perfume-V” and “Jackals, False Grails: The Lonesome Era,” while Malkmus’ cryptic yet clever wiseass lyrics are also worth mentioning. The common consensus among most critics is that the band never topped this album, and it was a rough hewn gem that became an underground favorite in a post-Nirvana world. From its bewitching title to its colorful artwork this lo-fi landmark couldn’t be pigeonholed, and it spawned many inferior “do it yourself” imitators and was one of the ‘90s most important and best albums.

Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain (Matador ‘94) Rating: A
Although not as original or influential as Slanted and Enchanted, Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain is an even better album in my book. Featuring more straightforward songs that are better recorded and stick around longer, Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain is likewise full of delicious guitar noises and impeccable melodies. The band also slows down the pace on several songs, most notably on “Range Life,” which has such a beautifully loping country groove that I can forgive its obnoxious putdowns of The Smashing Pumpkins and Stone Temple Pilots. Elsewhere, “Cut Your Hair” became a poppy college radio classic and is the one Pavement song that even non-fans may have heard of (for good reason as it’s fantastic), “Newark Wilder” has those pretty ringing guitars I love so much, “Unfair” is a good rocker overall even though Malkmus’ vocals can be rather grating at times, the gloriously poppy “Gold Soundz” sees Pavement at their brilliantly melodic best (Pitchfork ranked it the #1 song of the ‘90s!), and “Fillmore Jive” ends the album with an alternately lovely and exciting epic that offers pure aural pleasure (with impressive guitar heroics that are thankfully bereft of their trademark "irony"). Despite going for a more normal song oriented approach, thereby mapping out the path that the rest of their career would take, Pavement still keeps many surprises in store. To cite a few examples, “Silence Kit” starts out like a riff-driven classic rock song (love that “aah” vocal at around the 1-minute mark) but gradually becomes increasingly fractured, the excellent groover “Elevate Me Later” features a noisy false ending, and the pretty ringing guitars of “Stop Breathin’” shift midway into a moody instrumental section that builds in intensity throughout the rest of the song. And that’s just the first three songs! There are plenty of other unexpected shifts interspersed throughout, the jazzy/funky instrumental interlude “5-4 = Unity,” for example, and though this album didn’t shake things up quite like its predecessor did, Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain is equally creative and is even more accessible due to its improved production, which smoothes over some of the band's rough edges. Of course, this album also isn’t without its minor flaws – “Heaven Is A Truck” is a mediocre ballad and the attempted funk of “Hit The Plane Down” is pretty annoying - but the modestly great overall end result was another utterly distinct creation that greatly pleased the band’s growing legion of admirers (including this hardcore Smashing Pumpkins fan).

Wowee Zowee (Matador ‘95) Rating: B+
This album is full of contradictions and can be frustratingly inconsistent - yet it’s also often brilliant. First of all, at the time of its release the album was unfairly panned by most of the critics who had previously championed the band (who now consisted of 5 full-time members), which is ironic considering the band’s previous "cooler than thou” putdowns of some of their more successful peers. Though I think that the critics were way too harsh on the band, and indeed the album’s reputation has grown significantly over the years, there’s no getting past the fact that Wowee Zowee was a comedown from their terrific first two albums. Wowee Zowee is a schizophrenic album with many abrupt stylistic shifts, and though there are many strong moments within these multi-sectioned songs, the songs themselves are erratic overall. Malkmus’ grating vocals on the louder material (“Brinx Job,” “Serpentine Pad,” “Half A Canyon”) doesn’t help matters, though the charged guitar parts certainly do, and songs such as “We Dance,” “Grounded,” “Father To A Sister Of Thought,” and “Pueblo” show that band hasn’t lost their knack for simple but beautiful guitar melodies. Elsewhere, “Black Out” and “Motion Suggests” also display languid grooves that stick, “Rattled By The Rush” is a rock solid riff rocker, and “AT &T” and “Kennel District” both showcase Pavement’s catchy and anthemic pop side. On the negative front, Wowee Zowee several disjointed, filler-ish songs, as this could’ve been a great 12-13 song album instead of a very good 18 song album. Still, in terms of quality songs the album still boasts an impressive overall percentage (“Grave Architecture” and “Fight This Generation” are standout tracks as well), plus I like the way the band is accentuating their mellower side, where Malkmus’ voice is most effective (i.e. least annoying). Helped by the band’s strongest production to date, with repeated listenings the varied material here begins to crystallize into clearer focus, making Wowee Zowee a bumpy ride that ends up being well worth the trip.

Brighten The Corners (Matador ‘97) Rating: A-
At first I was disappointed in this album, and my first impression was to think that Pavement had now become a boring mainstream rock band (at least soundwise, if not saleswise). But I was wrong, since Brighten The Corners' rewards reveal themselves gradually over time, and the album contains the gorgeous melodies and (occasional) patches of dissonance that made Wowee Zowee engrossing without that album’s inconsistency and wearying schizophrenia. This is Pavement’s most subtle and mature album to date, with lyrics largely concerning coming to terms with growing up, which is fitting at this stage of the game. Also, lines like “what about the voice of Geddy Lee, how did it get so high, I wonder if he speaks like an ordinary guy” (from “Stereo”) and “political favors can make you a savior”(from “Embassy Row”) are characteristically witty, but without the obnoxiousness that had sometimes marred their previous work. Most of the songs work around the dreamy guitar interplay of group mainstays Scott Kannberg and Steven Malkmus, and though Malkmus sometimes still sings deliberately (and annoyingly) off key, this is Pavement’s most straightforward album to date. Of course, some well placed “oohs” and “aahs,” frenzied feedback eruptions (“Transport Is Arranged,” “Fin”), and epic choruses (“Date With IKEA,” “We Are Underused”) prove that Pavement can still thrill and surprise. These mostly mellow songs can get a bit bland at times, but by and large Brighten The Corners saw Pavement in fine form (the pretty ringing guitars and catchy chorus of “Shady Lane” even got some airplay, while the lovely “Starlings of the Slipsteam” provided another highlight, as did the two harder rocking songs quoted previously), and the album again had critics fighting for space on the Pavement bandwagon.

Terror Twilight (Matador ’99) Rating: B+
Pavement will likely never top their classic first two albums, but you can still enjoy each enriching Pavement release based on its own individual merits. On Terror Twiliglht, the wonderfully sloppy amateurism of Slanted and Enchanted (which critics tend to slightly overrate at the expense of the band’s other albums) is but a distant memory, as the band continues to pursue a mellower, more professional musical path. Fittingly, the lyrics are more straightforward and grown up, and less ironic. Fortunately, on tracks like “Platform Blues,” which sounds like several songs rolled into one, Pavement still wear their “alternative”/“indie” tags well, while the languid melodies of “Spit On A Stranger” and “Major Leagues” are among their most beautiful yet, with good vocal hooks to boot. Like their last couple of albums, both of which I found disappointing at first, Terror Twilight took several spins to appreciate but eventually grew on me, though there are times when the album is a little too laid-back for its own good. There also aren’t many individual songs that stand out from the pack, as the band seems to be coasting on past ideas a bit (“You Are A Light” sounds like a mellower remake of “We Are Underused”) by relying on an enticing overall groove. The confident end result is still enjoyable and offers several sing-a-long moments (“Billie,” “…And Carrot Rope”), though this is easily the band’s least exciting effort yet. Alas, as of this writing (2010) this turned out to be the last Pavement album, as group leader Malkmus elected to pursue a solo career. A reunion tour in 2010 was well-received, however, so perhaps another Pavement album isn’t out of the question. Finally, to wrap up these Pavement reviews, let me say that the deluxe reissue repackagings of the original Pavement albums are well worth getting if you’re a big fan of the band.

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