Because their recording career so neatly covers the 1990s – debut Slanted and Enchanted was recorded in 1991 and swansong Terror Twilight was released in 1999 – Pavement are a very respectable choice for best band of their decade. Their slacker image and post-modern approach also encapsulates the 1990s. Too clever for the mainstream, they released a string of acclaimed records, and covered a lot of artistic ground over their their five albums.
The constants of the group were vocalists and guitarists Stephen Malkmus and Scott Kannberg – the latter often known by his stage name of Spiral Stairs. The two contributed all of the group’s material, with Malkmus the primary writer, and Kannberg contributing a couple of songs to each album, with his more abrasive approach. The lineup for Pavement’s 1992 debut included drummer Gary Young; the group needed a second drummer to keep him in time, while his nefarious ways included handstands on stage and greeting the audience personally at the door. After Young was fired, the group solidified with Malkmus and Kannberg joined by bassist Mark Ibold and percussionists Bob Nastanovich and Steve West.
Pavement are generally associated with the style of 1992’s Slanted and Enchanted, which mixes noisy experimentation and lo fi recording with hooky songs. But the group evolved from album to album – Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain is a nod to classic rock, Wowee Zowee is a sprawling double album, Brighten The Corners is mellowed out, while Terror Twilight is textural with less of a band feel.
Re-listening to Pavement’s catalogue, I’ve noticed how detailed and packed with ideas their albums are – I’ve owned them all for at least a decade and still feel like I haven’t gained a full understanding of them, and that there’s plenty of listening mileage left in them. Pavement were an intelligent group, brimming with good tunes and interesting ideas.
Pavement Album Reviews
Favourite Album: Slanted And Enchanted
Overlooked Gem: Wowee Zowee
Slanted And Enchanted
Pavement are generally associated with a lo-fi sound, but debut album Slanted and Enchanted is the only one of their studio albums that follows this template. Recorded in a week at drummer Gary Young’s Louder Than You Think studio, Slanted And Enchanted exudes lo-fi ethics, buzzing with distorted guitars. Stephen Malkmus’ lyrics are idiosyncratic – “She waits there in the levee wash/Mixing cocktails with a plastic-tipped cigar” observes ‘Summer Babe’ – but his delivery is disarmingly straightforward and Slanted And Enchanted never feels gimmicky. The messy sound is only window dressing for the group’s inherent hooks and melodies, and arugably the mess enhances the experience; Slanted And Enchanted has a loose and natural charm.
While these songs are dressed up in budget production, bizarre lyrics and loud guitars, they are often surprisingly catchy. Sounding most like a single is opener ‘Summer Babe (Winter Version)’ with a warm melody and cutting guitars. ‘Loretta’s Scars’ rides a catchy groove, while ‘Jackals, False Grails: The Lonesome Era’ is direct and memorable. Balancing the lo-fi rockers, there are more contemplative works and touches of country in ‘Here’ and ‘Zurich Is Stained’. Malkmus fronts most of these songs – Scott Kannberg only has one songwriting credit with ‘Two States’.
Slanted And Enchanted is a remarkable debut – a new group with their ideas fully formed, and a bunch of great songs.
Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain
Pavement return less frenetic, less eccentric and with better sound quality for their sophomore effort Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain. While their songs are still strangely structured and they haven’t tempered their uniqueness too far, the overall effect is less unsettling; it’s more like skewed classic rock. While Slanted and Enchanted was created by the three piece lineup of Malkmus, Kannberg, and Gary Young, the band are a full five piece here, with Mark Ibold on bass, and Steve West and Bob Nastanovich taking Young’s place. The expanding sound and tighter playing allow Pavement more options; Malkmus’ vocals are more powerful, while they mix in more styles and textures than previously.
Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain starts conventionally with songs like ‘Silence Kit’ and ‘Elevate Me Later’, and gets more diverse further in. The rawness of ‘Unfair’ recalls Slanted And Enchanted while the jauntiness of ‘Gold Soundz’ magnifies the appeal of Malkmus’ oddball persona. The diversity is taken a step further with the Dave Brubeck tribute ‘5-4=Unity’, the Neil Young like ‘Range Life’ features my favourite Malkmus line (“The Stone Temple Pilots/They’re elegant bachelors/They’re foxy to me/Are they foxy to you?”) and a funky bass riff propels Kannberg’s ‘Hit The Plane Down’, before Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain ends with the anthem of ‘Fillmore Jive’.
Choosing a favourite out of Pavement’s first two albums is a difficult task; they’re quite different from each other, and both are excellent in their own right. In my view, Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain has better songs, but it can’t quite match the freshness and excitement of Slanted and Enchanted.
Slanted and Enchanted was their low fi album, Crooked Rain… was their classic rock album, and Wowee Zowee is Pavement’s sprawling double album. Clocking in at 18 songs, it can be exhausting listen – it’s essentially a very good double album that could have been a great single album. Despite the long running time, it’s not particularly diverse – most of the songs fall into the categories of trashy rocker, mid-tempo hooky song, or introspective country piece. With a wealth of material, I assume Wowee Zowee is an album that many hardcore Pavement fans pick as their favourite, but although I love a lot of it, I don’t rate it quite as highly as the two previous records.
There’s still a wealth of great songs. ‘Kennel District’ is my favourite Kannberg contribution to Pavement, a simple propulsive rocker, although other abrasive rockers like ‘Fight This Generation’ and ‘Serpentine Pad’ are the album’s weakest points. Wowee Zowee also features plenty of great mid-tempo Malkmus songs like ‘We Dance’ and ‘Grave Architecture’. The country flavoured material like ‘Half A Canyon’ and ‘Western Homes’ is clustered at the end of the disc, meaning that Wowee Zowee feels as though it has a country EP tacked onto its conclusion.
It could have been an excellent single album, but there’s also something very satisfying about Wowee Zowee as a sprawling double album; it feels like it was supposed to be enjoyed that way.
Brighten The Corners
The previous Pavement albums were all brimming with ideas, so the straightforward nature of Brighten The Corners is disarming at first. The sound is often stripped down, and it’s a less intense musical experience. With less going on, it’s up to the album’s melodies to hold attention, and when there isn’t a strong tune it can be dull.
Malkmus gets off one of his most memorable lines in on the opener ‘Stereo’; “What about the voice of Geddy Lee/How did it get so high?/I wonder if he speaks like an ordinary guy?/(I know him and he does!)/And you’re my fact-checkin’ cuz.” ‘Shady Lane’ is a pretty tune, and ‘Starlings of the Slipsteam’ is tuneful and surging. Kannberg’s two songs stand out as rawer and more urgent than Malkmus’ work here, and ‘Date w/ Ikea’ and ‘Passat Dream’ are two of the best tracks on Brighten The Corners.
There are some strong songs on Brighten The Corners, but it’s difficult not to be disappointed by the more relaxed feel after three albums that were among the decade’s finest.
Terror Twilight is retrospectively remembered by the group as their most difficult record – with group tensions escalating, it ended up as essentially a collaboration between Stephen Malkmus and producer Nigel Godrich, fresh from working with Radiohead, Beck, and R.E.M.’s Up. Terror Twilight is mellow like Brighten The Corners, but with Godrich adding sonic textures it’s much more interesting. Kannberg doesn’t contribute any songs on Terror Twilight, and in some ways it’s difficult to see how his music would fit into the mellowed out, textured feel of Terror Twilight.
The collaboration of Malkmus and Godrich generally results in languid and pretty songs, although ‘Cream of Gold’ is an engaging riff rocker, and closer ‘Carrot Rope’ lopes along jauntily. But otherwise the most memorable pieces are the slow-paced melodic songs like opener ‘Spit On A Stranger’, ‘You Are A Light’, and the country feel of ‘Major Leagues’.
Artistically, Terror Twilight is a rebound from Brighten The Corners – Godrich’s arrangements augment these songs and make them more interesting, and it’s a pretty album. But the near absence of the other members signposts that the band had run its course, and it’s not surprising that Terror Twilight was Pavement’s final album.
Ten Favourite Pavement Songs
Summer Babe (Winter Version)
In The Mouth A Desert
Elevate Me Later
Hit The Plane Down
Spit On A Stranger
Cream of Gold
Date w/ Ikea