On First Listen

on First Listen is a regular column that forces our regular writers to listen to bands that they’ve never heard—but by all rights should have—and charts the reaction.

I had three confirmed encounters with Pavement prior to this summer. During my last year of high school in 1994, I saw the video for "Cut Your Hair" on MTV and thought it was kind of dumb. The second was in 1999, while working as a line cook in Northampton, Massachusetts. The kitchen manager, Sonic Youth's nanny, played Terror Twilight precisely once. I thought it was kind of cool. My third encounter transcends time and place, transpiring with niggling persistence throughout the years between '94 and now. Rather than a listening-to-music experience, however, it's been a listening-to-that-guy one, a series of one-sided exchanges between myself and various Stephen Malkmus acolytes, Pavement bake-sale booster-club members and sundry others serving on their massive, unpaid street team. Typically, it goes a little something like this:

Pavement Dude: OMG, like, the best band ever do you love them a lot?

Me: I never really listened to them all that much.

Pavement Dude: Jeezus, WTF is wrong with you?

Me: (gently explaining what I just wrote above)

Pavement Dude: (series of expletives)

Based on the briefness of my musical exposure and the length and depth of my non-musical ones, I'd speciously written Pavement off as insular, ironic, sweater-clad whiteboys intent on the total elimination of fun within our lifetime. This has much more to do with the hallowed reverence they've been accorded than any tangible artistic content. Hell, even their record sleeves should have clued me in to their cheeky brand of whimsy. My sharp detour away from guitar-based pop during the heyday of grunge certainly didn't help, but let's not split hairs. Pavement was previously ruined for me by Pavement fans, continuously informing me that everything I liked (hip-hop, prog, goth, synthpop, avant electronic improv shit, techno, miscellaneous club shit, jazz, early country and psyche-folk) sucked total ass and I should be kneeling at the altar of whatever Pavement and Guided By Voices and Built to Spill album was currently out. Despite the fact that indie rock as a genre has gradually grown intelligent and/or bored enough to embrace nearly everything I listened to way back when people were telling me that stuff was garbage, I still have yet to escape hordes of same calling me a douchebag for not listening to Pavement actively and intensely.

Most people are smarter than me. They would probably react to such repeated torment by developing a hatred of said artist. Not me. Me, I sit down and listen to many hours of Pavement music.

Turns out I'm a douchebag.

Turns out that I rather like and very much respect Pavement. Not because of their "influence" or their following, but because of what they sounded like. They were a great pop band, as valid and exciting as the Police or the Pixies or Pulp. In my world, that means these guys were downright special, and they could have been special to me at the time had I been able to penetrate the disdain ladled out by their fans or experienced the band's live charms myself. Such slights are easily forgiven, though, since they are at the very heart of rock bands and rock band fandom. If there was ever a band engineered for fandom it would be Pavement –gloriously eccentric lyrics, limited edition 7-inch singles, and a signifying murky/dorky design set as perfectly fetishistic as Depeche Mode's. Such attention to aesthetics is but one way in which Pavement easily eclipsed both their peers and those who rode their coattails, brandishing punk's old collage techniques in the name of a bright, cranky take on American pop art that most indie record sleeves still dwell in the shadows of.

So, what happened? Did I finally bow to the dictates of guys in band tees and unobtrusive beards, the pressures of the rockcrit canon, or the reverence of such an un-indie colleague as Alfred Soto?

Nope. I fell in love. And I fell in love with someone who loves Pavement. I'm finding out as I listen to their discography that this is not an entirely inappropriate way to appreciate the band. Their songs are filled, not with the arms-folded scenester posing I expected, but with the fragile joy of a wallflower-turned-hero of Sister Sledge's "He's the Greatest Dancer." The burst of fruitful, post-adolescent, post-first heartbreak love is sprayed all over their music like dork graffiti. Turns out it's all about the rush in Pavement's music, the more awkward (if it's genuine) and heartfelt (if tempered with the appropriate amount of rue) the better.

While Slanted & Enchanted might be the touchstone, that's probably more due to the inability of fandom to see beyond that first pubescent boner than it is an indicator of quality. To these ears, Pavement actually improved with age. It's possible to see this potential from the start, but it's only midway through their arc that the rewards actually justify the hyperbole. Truthfully, if Slanted & Enchanted serves any kind of epoch-making purpose beyond just being a swell record by a swell new band, it's as museum piece–for herein lies the indie aesthetic, not so much defined as mummified. Legions may not have purchased the album, but I'll be damned if every fucking one of them didn't mine Pavement's vein of hyperactive cleverness without ever serving so much as a single day in those trenches. I know—you can't blame Pavement for Modest Mouse, or hold them responsible for the horrid likes of Death Cab for Cutie or Bright Eyes.

Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain will most likely go down as my least favorite Pavement album, smacking as it does of retrenchment. "Cut Your Hair" is still kind of stupid–"special new band," indeed. Scene politics, whatever the decade, have nothing in them of charm or wit, and Malkmus had far too much of both to waste his time running strafing missions for the likes of Steve Albini. Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain exerts itself a bit too smugly in this direction, the sound of a band stung by their own buzz. To Malkmus' credit, he deals with the burden of rock saviordom in admirably confused fashion. Better still if he hadn't addressed it at all, though, since the indie-vs.-corporate debate has aged about as well as Kurt Loder's haircut. Side Two offers some adventure: the jazz-noir of "5 - 4 = Unity" and keening alt-country of "Range Life" suggesting future exciting developments. As the creation of a band struggling with the sudden, unexpected challenge of legacy creation, Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain is nothing if not instructive.

By the time of Wowee Zowee, Pavement had nothing left to prove and bloody well knew it. Arriving little more than a year after their second album, it's the prototypical third LP, bulging with an expansionist agenda. Overstuffed, certainly overreaching, it's nonetheless a sprawl well worth getting lost, found, and lost again in. What fits them even better than the loose, half-finished feel here is the growing display of studio mastery, a return to the stoned audiophilia of their roots that accentuates their hook-y acuity and unencumbered melodies. "Black Out" typifies the gentleness to come—fragile and bracing at once, revealing a maturation of Malkmus' songwriting and a genuine love for acoustic bliss. Wile Wowee Zowee doesn't so much wallow indulgently as spread deliciously, it still begs for a dose of self-censoring, particularly in the punk/spazz experiments, which grew feebler with the aging process.

Brighten the Corners is easily their most impressive album, brimming with tight and polished pop punched out by a band that had finally earned the chops to craft a sound as full and effortless as that of their heroes. "Stereo" makes for a false start, being the last time catchy and annoying would coexist in a Pavement tune. Much more telling are "Shady Lane" and "Transport is Arranged," the former revealing the extremity of Malkmus' awkward romanticism, the latter the extent of the lads' King Crimson collection. Brighten the Corners' most pertinent addition to their music is the way in which textures and moods brush against each other so comfortably: brusque across languorous, abrasive slid alongside smooth. Complex coexistence triumphs over quirky collage, and the band reveals their debt to British progressive pop: "Embassy Row" rocks out the music hall as hard as anything on the Kinks' Arthur, and "Passat Dream" could be mistaken for the Stone Roses.

Whether or not it was intended to be a swan song, Terror Twilight certainly sounds like one. Big Star, casual-dress Americana, bittersweet romanticism, and Nigel Godrich's restrained production all play a role in the Pavement record most accessible to the latteé crowd. Lo-fi has long since withered away, but songs like “You Are a Light” show a savvy use of its less-with-more dynamic. A warm glow suffuses these doggedly honest tunes, the prototypical Pavement-isms still present but hanging a bit more beneath the surface. Not necessarily out of ideas, Pavement sound more sated than anything else; they'd reached the perfect stopping point, forever. This seems especially apt if the wonky funk-lite of "Carrot Rope" was a signpost for their next direction. The world is sore and full of need, but nobody ever needed an indie Doobie Brothers.

Taste in matters musical is a personal, often arbitrary thing, subject to as much cultural hooey as heartfelt engagement. But the bridge between populism and elitism is narrow enough to spin a dime in, and however comfortable it may have been for the members of Pavement to perch there, it wasn't built to support the weight of an entire culture. The sad part of Pavement's legacy, and one far afield from their intentions, has been the empowerment of a cult of hipsterdom, an elite of anti-elitists. In this, Pavement fans are no better or worse than hardcore AC/DC or Frank Zappa fans, no more or less a set of rubes with killer record collections.

Luckily, the social and musical boundaries mapped out by my high school peers are even more obsolete now than when they were first erected. Whether or not I wear a crew-cut sweater or a blazer, whether I prefer Pavement or Depeche Mode has ceased to matter. "Indie," whatever it might be, is back to where it was before the misbegotten adventure of the 90's, and the Mode are as popular a referent as Malkmus & co. Where we go from here is anyone's guess, but listening to Pavement well after the fact, I'm thoroughly convinced that it is the act of becoming—the discovery—that is being adored here. Not a set of musical or cultural rules to follow, but an embrace of potentialities, an unshackling of constraints both societal and self-imposed. Wallflowers no more, you know the score.

Slanted & Enchanted
Watery, Domestic
Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain
Wowee Zowee
Brighten the Corners
Terror Twilight

By: Mallory O’Donnell
Published on: 2007-07-25
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