Wowee Zowee: Sordid Sentinels Edition
n 1995, when Pavement debuted tracks from Wowee Zowee at their first Lollapalooza date, the crowd was so angry with what they heard that they threw mud at the band. To prove they were serious, eventually they moved on to rocks, one of which hit Stephen Malkmus in the chest. Promptly, the band walked off the stage.
That pretty much sums up Wowee Zowee. After Pavement failed to achieve commercial success with Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, they headed to Easley Studios in Memphis for what most assumed was a second shot. Instead, they puzzled their fans by releasing a sprawling 18-song set that had long stretches of slow songs, sporadically punctuated by abrupt bursts of noisy punk. Despite the studio polish, Wowee Zowee is easily Pavement's most chaotic and disjointed record. Fittingly, it was one of the first records chosen for Stylus’ Playing God feature.
Pavement's fans tend to like them the more that the band's detractors hate them, so it's easy to see why many consider Wowee Zowee their favorite. For my money, it's not their best, but it's also far better than its reputation. Nearly every song bears mentioning: the silly and elegant opener "We Dance," the tired, ringing "Grounded," the languid country of "Father to a Sister of a Thought," the power pop of "AT&T," and especially the goofy, meandering "Grave Architecture."
Wowee Zowee: Sordid Sentinels Edition, doesn't have the wealth of unheard material or Peel Sessions that were contained on either of their two previous reissues; most of this material has been heard before. Which isn't to say you won’t find a cornucopia of treasures on this fifty-track behemoth. In addition to the prerequisite EP's and B-Sides (Rattled By La Rush, Father to a Sister of a Thought, and Pacific Trim, respectively), there are also four session outtakes, a 1994 session in Hilversum, Holland, a BBC Steve Lamacq in-studio session, pieces of a live show done on Wireless JJJ Radio in Australia, their contributions to two soundtracks and a compilation (I Shot Andy Warhol, Kids in the Hall in Brain Candy, Schoolhouse Rock! Rocks), and a Descendents cover ("It's a Hectic World").
With the exception of the outtakes, which are brief and inessential, everything is more than worth listening to if you haven't before. Loyal Pavement fans have most likely tracked down most of it, but never in such exquisite, lush packaging. Thank whoever was able to include more artwork from crackpot genius Steve Keene, who also did the gorgeous cover. There isn't another band or artist (with the notable exception of Bob Dylan) who has so generously reissued or unearthed previously unreleased material at such a consistently high quality.
Like their other reissues, Pavement have compiled something that excavates the vaults, sheds new light on their old albums, and creates a new album altogether. If Luxe and Reduxe was a chronicle of the prolific lo-fi movement, and L.A's Desert Origins was the tale of a rock band growing up, then Sordid Sentinels is a large-scale painting of the best that the 90s rock underground had to offer. Smugly smirk at cryptic and oblique pop-cult referencing lyrics! Bang your unwashed head at obsessive tension-release stop-start tunes! Kick a hackysack during stylistic dilly-dallying and genre marathons! It’s a startling representation of an era’s particular quirks.
Wowee Zowee is not without its faults, but it’s a delightful artifact. Sordid Sentinels excavates it and enhances it. Simply put, it's the reissue of the year, the third time that Pavement can flaunt such a claim. More importantly, it, in my mind, proves Pavement to be the unequivocal best band of the 90s. Not only did they release four great albums, but three of those have been reissued so extensively, carefully, and properly that they have rewritten the rules of how a band can be great, even after they have ceased to exist.