Start to Finish: Pavement

With Stephen Malkmus releasing a new album this year, it seems like a good time revisit Pavement’s catalog. Their influence on 90s indie rock is far reaching and can still be felt today musical landscape with bands like Dr. Dog, Modest Mouse, Snow Patrol, Spoon and many others. Let’s dive in.

Slanted and Enchanted (1992) – I bought a used copy of this album back when I was in high school during the late nineties. I remember thinking at the time “They sound like a sloppy version of Weezer” (see “In the Mouth A Desert”). This was a weird album to me because it was distorted and heavy but not really punk or typical Seattle grunge. It was goofy and serious at the same time. It sounded like they were trying but not too trying too hard (the laugh towards the end of opener “Summer Babe” sums it up). Despite being incredibly fragmented, the songs are still incredibly catchy. The chaos reaches a climax with the off-kilter approach on “Conduit For Sale!” where Malkmus repeatedly screams “I’m trying!” interspersed with segments of poetic story telling. Just as the album dives deeper into chaos , “Here” provides a nice soft relief and sums up the theme of the album: “I was dressed for success, a success the never comes. and I’m the only one who laughs.” Sonically, the album sounds pretty lo-fi: vocals lower in the mix, quiet kick drum, muddy bass, thin buzzy guitars – but it all adds to the charm. Overall, the title of the album seems fitting, as the lyrics and sound fit the absurdities of life and how we cope with them when we feel jaded and disillusioned. Essentials: Summer Babe,  In the Mouth A Desert, Here. 7.7/10

Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain (1994) – In many ways, Pavement sounds more like a traditional band on their sophomore effort. From the opening song, you can hear a step up in the fidelity of the songs – clear, punchy drums and bass, a fuller and well mixed sound – but their are plenty of moments where the off kilter, skewed delivery remains in tact.  “Cut Your Hair” and “Gold Soundz” are the catchiest songs of their career but they still manage to pack in plenty of raw moments of energy and yelling.  Stephen Malkmus’ singing can be off pitch at times but his urgency and confidence more than make up for it. The straightforward roosty/folk rock of “Range Life” is an interesting change up for the band but despite the more conventional sound, they still get goofy as they namecheck Smashing Pumpkins and Stone Temple Pilots in the same song. Overall, Pavement’s second album has produced a more palatable listen then their debut, while still retaining their edge. Essentials: Gold Soundz, Cut Your Hair, Elevate Me Later, Range Life. 8.9/10

Wowee Zowee (1995) – Wowzee Zowwee is an eclectic mess. On the one hand, there are some great moments on this album.  “Rattled By The Rush” balances the chaotic and catchy in what might be described as “classic Pavement”. The chiming guitars and distorted bend sounds on “Grounded” nicely blend the two worlds of post-rock (a la Explosion in the Sky) with arena alt rock along the lines of Smashing Pumpkins. At other times, they delve into folkier territories. The opener “We Dance” doesn’t sound out of place next to the David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust era material. “Father to a Sister of Thought” is a nice country flavored change up with a pedal steel added to the mix. On the other hand, they continue cranking out the crazy, weird songs (“Brinx Job”, Serpentine Pad”, “Flux = Rad”) as well as songs that aren’t particularly inspired and act as filler.  Overall, it’s a mixed bag. The psychedelic overtones can sound interesting but are also distracting. The playing on this album sounds a little sloppier then the last, particularly on “Extradition”, where it sounds like the song could fall apart at any minute. Their charming looseness is starting to sound more like unrehearsed sloppiness, which is harder to swallow with an 18 song, 55 minute run time. Ultimately, it’s a good album but one that would have been better served if it were more cohesive and concise like  Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain.  Essentials: Rattled By The Rush, Grounded, Father to A Sister of Thought, We Dance. 6.8/10

Brighten the Corners (1997) – It seems Pavement realized things got a little too messy on Wowee Zowee and that they need to bring in an outside producer to tighten up their sound. The results are pretty dramatic. They’ve eliminated all the weird, crazy songs and stuck with a more convention path: many of the songs are slower and more pleasant to listen to, the drums follow more traditional beats with the ride cymbal,  the singing and melodies are more on pitch and developed, and the recording quality is fuller and punchier. That’s not so say haven’t branched a little and tried a few new things. “Date With Ikea” is heavily influenced by the 12-string jangly guitar pop of REM. “Transport Is Arranged” features an interesting mellotron part contrasted with a twisted chord progression. Despite being a more restrained album, the highlight is the energetic opener “Stereo,” where they let loose and deliver the catchiest chorus of their career as if their lives depended on it. Overall, Brighten the Corners is a solid record where they have managed to restrain the chaos while still retaining some of their edge. Essentials: Stereo, Transport Is Arranged, Date with Ikea, Fin. 8.2/10

Terror Twilight (1999) – While continuing in relatively conventional territory, Pavement brought on acclaimed producer, Nigel Godrich, to add a little sonic variety to the pallet. Godrich was best known for his work on Radiohead’s OK Computer and was working on Travis’ The Man Who album around the same time. The production qualities seemed to be less influenced by the former than they are by later. The recording sounds very full and clean, which great attention paid to detail: extra little sound effects, occasional drum machines, and a focus on atmosphere. “Spit On A Stranger” is one of Pavement’s prettiest (and most conventional) melodies and has the sensitivity of their early staple “Here.” They also continue to dabble in alt-country as they have on their last few albums. “Platform Blues” features a fun distorted harmonica part played by none other than Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood. “Folk Jam” features the first banjo in a Pavement song (that I’ve aware of). Some of the songs bring back the edge that they rubbed off on Brighten the Corners: “Speak, See, Remember” has a fragmented structure that jumps genres, “You Are A Light” has occasional bursts and triplet lead guitar lines, and “Cream of Gold” evolves into moments of chaos. Towards the close of the album, “The Hexx” adds a dissonant, almost creepy vibe not present in their other songs. While not their catchiest album, it is certainly their album with the greatest atmosphere and a fitting close to their recording career. Essentials: Spit On A Stranger, Major Leagues, The Hexx. 7.8/10