Pavement, in some respects, are the quintessential slacker band. Their music was textbook lo-fi, their lyrics were sardonic and indecipherable, leader Stephen Malkmus’ jaded vocals recalled Lou Reed, their songs were often fragmentary and seemingly half-finished, they lit feedback bombs in unexpected places, and they took a whatever’s-handy approach to production, tossing in virtually anything that might seem to make an interesting noise.
It seems unlikely that Malkmus and crew realized what they were doing when they first started banging around in a shed in Stockton CA. Time has since put their achievements into better relief; Pavement were the leaders of the lo-fi movement, perhaps the most critical genre of the early 1990’s, and the lessons they taught, particularly on Slanted and Enchanted, continue to inform loners with 4-tracks around the world. They helped re-shape the indie world, garnered considerable critical attention, and earned a devoted cult of fans and inspired fellow musicians, and took the DIY ethic a step forward from punk; more than anyone at the start of the 90’s, Pavement showed that literally anyone could make a convincing, challenging album. Their main competetors were Sebadoh, but history has been kinder to Pavement.
Pavement was formed in Stockton in 1989 by Stephen Malkmus and childhood friend Scott Kannberg in 1989. Malkmus had just returned from the University of Virginia, where he had majored in history. At this time, the duo called themselves S.M. and Spiral Staircase, a name also used by Kannberg himself. At the beginning, they considered themselves a studio project; with no band, they had no plans to tour. Malkmus did most of the singing and songwriting.
The duo met up with drummer Gary Young (not to be confused with drummer Gary Young of Daddy Cool and Jo Jo Zep) who was in his 40’s and an eccentric veteran of third-tier local bands since the 1960’s. He was living in Stockton as something of an acid casualty; however, he had his own tiny little recording studio and could still play drums. Malkmus and Kannberg invited Young to join them, while they availed themselves of his studio.
The trio recorded an EP, Slay Tracks (1933-1969), named after a high school shooting incident that occured on the day of recording in 1989. Murky and noisy, it is a lo-fi recording of guitar feedback and angst; at times bordering on unlistenable, it also offered glimpses of talent underneath. Discs were pressed on a homemade label called Louder Than You Think for $800. Kannberg handled promotion, which mainly involved giving away the disc to friends, relatives, his dad, fanzines, and a few small record labels. The few that found their way into the hands of reviewers did get some lukewarm notice; the jittery melodies and noise were something different. One early recipient of theis rare pressing was influential British deejay John Peel. On the strength of this, the band was able to get a deal with the somewhat larger Chicago indie label Drag City, who came to specialize in both lo-fi and experimental music.
The trio followed this up with Demolition Plot J-7, released on Drag City in 1990. While this too is a screeching, muddy noisefest, it also demonstrated an embryonic pop sense creeping in. Demolition Plot J-7, while nearly as noisy and chaotic as its predecessor, actually had a great song on it, “Forklift”, and a fairly touching emotional number called “Perfect Depth”. It represented a progression from the debut; after celebrating noise on Slay Tracks, the music was taking on a shape and something of a signature sound. The band’s lack of a cohesive identity actually added a hint of mystery to the music, which bolstered their appeal.
Perfect Sound Forever is where Pavement starts sounding like what they were destined to become. The title was an audacious gauntlet thrown down in the face of what still remained half-formed music, but the best moments on the disc come close to living up to it; “Debris Slide” and “From Now On” are early anthemic classics of slackerdom, and provide a taste of what would come shortly after. Perfect Sound Forever was written up in numerous publications; Pavement was becoming a name people recognized, even if few had still heard their music. The interest began to grow so much that poorly-mixed tapes of the band’s debut album, Slanted and Enchanted were leaked and began to circulate among fans and critics. Their sound was compared to R.E.M., Sonic Youth, the Pixies, and British lo-fi pioneers The Fall; a British music magazine would later play “Two States” for Mark E. Smith of the Fall, telling him it was an old Fall b-side. Smith believed them.
The band still hadn’t played any live gigs; it wasn’t until early 1991, after their third EP, that they began to play in front of audiences. For their first shows, Pavement added bassist Mark Ibold and a second drummer, Bob Nastanovich, a college friend of Malkmus. The latter was asked to join in order to bolster the shaky timekeeping of Young, who stayed in the band. All members were present for the recording of the band’s debut album, Slanted and Enchanted, although little of the album was recorded together; most of it was assembled by Malkmus and Kannberg.
Slanted and Enchanted is unusual in that it was already garnering praise even before it had been released; the leaked tapes had reached almost mythical status. The band landed with Matador records for the release, which came in Spring 1992. Having played few live dates, the band’s fans at this point consisted almost solely of critics and musicians. Slanted and Enchanted changed this immediately; coming from seemingly nowhere, it established itself almost immediately as a classic, and still holds up as one of the essential albums of the 1990’s. It is here that the noisy, rudimentary promise of their early EP’s draw together in a complete whole. True to form, the album is lo-fi and primitive sounding; however the songs themselves are remarkable in their rich detail. Malkmus takes conventional songwriting and stands it on his head, but without sacrificing his blossoming melodicism and songcraft. Many of the songs are fragments, the melodies drift in and out, but the overall effect is greater than the sum of its parts; the experience some have compared to listening to the best college station in the world over an AM transistor. “Summer Babe” was the leadoff cut, and is instantly winning in its laid back groove. “Trigger Cut” is their best Fall-like song, subverted with a falsetto sha-la-la backing. Instead of reckless noise, the band put together a compellingly listenable collection, full of surprises like bells, weird drumming, chiming guitars, unexpected melodic choruses, and things that click and clack.
The album won them many new fans, although it didn’t make the charts. With this encouraging start, the band began touring in earnest; their live shows became notorious for their sloppy sound, and Young’s downright peculiar behavior. He greeted the audience at the door, shook their hands, handed them salads or cucumber sandwiches. He’d do handstands on stage, he’d pass out drunk. He was present for the band’s next release, and EP called Watery, Domestic, which was a transitional release that showed Malkmus and Kannberg moving away from their static-laden roots and moving towards a cleaner sound. It’s an excellent disc; the slow grind of “Lions (Linden)” points to denser directions, and the wistful “Frontwords” is a winner. Best is the leadoff, “Texas Never Whispers”, one of their most straightforward songs so far.
Young no longer fit into the band’s direction and either quit or was fired in 1993. His replacement was Steve West, an old friend of Nastanovich.
As good as Slanted and Enchanted is, there are many who think their next album, Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, is even better. It was the album that broke them to the mainstream, thanks mainly to “Cut Your Hair” a pop hit and MTV staple. The album is much cleaner than the debut, for better and worse, but the songwriting continues to improve, from the countrified “Range Life” to the dark “Newark Wilder”. “Range Life” got them into hot water with Billy Corgan, for including a swipe at Smashing Pumpkins in its lyrics. Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain lacks some of the head-scratching mystery of previous releases, but keeps their off-kilter fragmentary tunefulness in place, making it more accessable. More importantly, it represented the real cohesion of Pavement as a band, rather than Malkmus and Kannberg plus. They go from rock to pop to jazz to country as musicians, rather than clip-art artists, often within the same song. “Stop Breathin” is a heart-rending ballad, “Unfair” is an angst riot, “Silence Kit” begins as a mash of wah-wah and fuzz before slipping into an airy California pop tune. Pavement demonstrates here how from chaos comes order, a very different message from earlier heroes like Velvet Underground, who took order and turned it to chaos. Slanted and Enchanted captures Malkmus and Kannberg in their inspired naivete; Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain captures Pavement as it matures. Another first-rate indispensible 1990’s album. It also made the charts, peaking at #121.
Not everybody loved them, however. Pavement joined the 1994 Lolapalooza tour and received very mixed reactions from the audience, ranging from adoration to hostility; at one stop in West Virgina, the crowd pelted the band with rocks, forcing the red-faced and upset band to walk offstage mid-set.
The band spent 1994 recording a follow-up, and Malkmus and Nastanovich also lent a hand to Starlite Walker, the debut album by the Silver Jews, led by their college friend David Berman.
Either because of their underground success, or their overground mixed reception, Pavement got their next album together quickly; Wowee Zowee was released in early 1995. At first listen, it sounds like the band was trying to please everybody; even for them, it was a diverse offering. The styles bounce all over the place; from punk, to English beer hall, to country, to jazz, to soul, to west-coast pop. They take a few more swipes at contemporaries, this time Ween, Suede and Stereolab. The overall tone is more melancholy, with stately washes of feedback that recall Neil Young in places. No quasi-hits in the sense of the straightforward “Cut Your Hair” are present. In a sense, the band merely does what it has always done; taken a post-modern approach to music, in which anything becomes grist. However, a critical backlash was beginning; the same critics who once lauded their eclectic fragmentary approach were now condemning them for it. In truth, the album isn’t quite as good as its predecessors, or at least, it isn’t as acessable. It is one of those albums that require several plays, upon which it sounds like a logical and well constructed follow-up. It sold about the same, peaking at #117.
The backlash continued for almost two years. In 1995 the band again joined Lolapalooza, and were miscast as a main stage band, they played to sparse audiences; had they been second stage, they probably would have fared better. A 1996 EP, Pacific Trim was released, and gained them weak notice from the press, who noted a retreat from the eclecticism they disliked on Wowee Zowee, and now disliked the retreat. Indeed, it is an un-Pavementlike recording; its four songs were originally intended for the Silver Jews, but when a recording session was cancelled, Malkmus had Pavement record them instead. It’s a minor, but pleasant enough addition to their catalog.
Brighten The Corners, from 1997, is a subtle change for the band. A little more muted than in the past, they instead channel their eclecticism into creating a solid set of songs that hold together a little more, sonically. It opens with the withering dissonance of “Stereo”, which reveals a hidden, joyously delivered chorus. Kannberg’s “Date w/IKEA”, features distorted vocals that retain their melodicism, “Shady Lane” is catchy and guitar based, “Blue Hawaiian” features some hip-hop inflections that grow on the listener, given a chance. “Fin” borders on sadcore, with its grandiose bleakness. Once again, it takes a couple of listens to realize the stately beauty of the album. While Malkmus and Kannberg get a little too wise-guy for their own good in places, it doesn’t diminish the overarching and ambitious musical statements. It’s a full return to form, and proved their best selling so far, reaching #70 on the charts.
It didn’t win over a lot of their enemies, however, who used “slacker” as a slur against these middle class Californians who seemed too lazy to develop the technical chops their albums’ ambitiousness seemed to demand, nor did Malkmus’ smug and smartass attitude at times win them friends. The band was disappointed with the critical reception for Brighten The Corners, and their humor often seemed misunderstood. Some of the good reviews called the album “mature”, while erstwhile fans pointed to it as a sign of decline.
Coming off a worldwide tour, the band decided to take a break in early 1998. Malkmus busied himself with the Silver Jews, while Kannberg started up a label, Pray For Mojo, and also did some drumming for an impromptu San Francisco covers band, Half Five Quarter to Six. The band members also devoted time to their families, after the years of work. The months passed, and rumors began to swirl that the band’s heart wasn’t in it anymore, that a break-up was imminent. Pavement insisted there would be an album in 1999, and true to word, Terror Twilight was released.
Nigel Godrich was an eyebrow-raising choice for producer. Noted for his smooth-as-silk production of Natalie Imbruglia, Beck, and Radiohead, he seemed likely to sand off Pavement’s rough edges; Pavement without rough edges would be a greatly diminished band. Fortunately, Godrich didn’t sand-down the band so much as reign them in, as he had done with Beck and Radiohead, and having a reign on Malkmus and Kannberg did help make the album more cohesive and accessable. However, it doesn’t sound like Pavement of old; Kannberg has no songs included, and Malkmus has never seemed so laid back. The guitars recede into texture with minimal outbursts; if anything, the album is missing the firey unpredictibility Pavement had built its name on. It’s still a fine album, if unrepresentative. “Spit On A Stranger” and “You Are A Light” are standouts. While derided by some as a pop move, others found this to be the easiest listening of the band’s career, and again saw it as a sign of further “maturation”. Terror Twilight peaked at #95.
The rumors of a break-up grew after that; Malkmus began playing solo dates which made Terror Twilight seem in retrospect like a solo run-through. These fears proved correct in late 1999 when the band didn’t so much as break up as simply wander away. Pavement announced they’d be splitting “for the forseeable future”, while Matador Records hinted it would only be a temporary hiatus. At their final gig, at London’s Brixton Academy, on November 20, 1999, the band played with a set of handcuffs hanging from the mic stand. Malkmus said it was a symbol of being in a band. He thanked the audience politely at the end of the show, and the band left the stage.
For awhile fans clung to the hope that the band was indeed on “hiatus”, but in 2000, as Malkmus worked on a solo project and Kannberg reunited with banished drummer Gary Young in a project called the Preston School of Industry, it became clear that the band wasn’t going to come together again. Both toured separately in 2001; rumor has it they were no longer getting along. Neither explicity said the band was finished, but hinted at it a lot. In a sense, it was the ultimate slacker-style breakup; and it frustrated their fans.
They leave behind a fine legacy; all five of their albums are good, if challenging, listening, and two of them are great. There are still those who say the band was more a sum of their influences than influential themselves; however, it’s hard to conceive of many late 90’s lo-fi bands existing without them. Their music was challenging, fun, and didn’t rely on technical ability; it showed the average slacker that you can make music, and complex music at that, with a minimum of resources.
In 2002 Slow Century, a DVD of all their videos, some live performances, a 90-minute documentary, and assorted other goodies was released, Slanted and Enchanted has also been re-released in “deluxe” format, as a double CD with bonus tracks, including live ones.
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