Pavement Is Forever
Twenty Years of Lies and Betrayals, Fruit-Covered Nails, Electricity and Lust
Speaking of nostalgia, allow me to begin this commemoration of the reunited Pavement by recounting a cherished, Pavement-scented memory from my past. This event occurred back in 1992, when Pavement were an underground band with deafening buzz and I was a young man entrenched in a musically discordant relationship: I liked everything (mostly noisy guitar bands) and he liked classical (mostly Bach). Despite his restricted musical diet, my snooty-music-loving dude wasn't a prude, and watching him process records I obsessed over was fascinating. He accepted almost everything, expressed admiration for a few things (The Velvet Underground's "The Murder Mystery," parts of XTC's Skylarking and Camper Van Beethoven's Key Lime Pie, the whole of My Bloody Valentine's Loveless), and actively forbade only one thing ever, which he endured once in 1992 and never again. This forbidden thing: "Summer Babe (Winter Version)," the lead track on Slanted and Enchanted, Pavement's 1992 debut LP, which stumbled from our speakers in all its careless, corroded glory and made my guy almost nauseated. "These people have a recording contract?" he asked, for real. "This should not be considered music."
I attempted to explain, something along the lines of "You know how sunsets are so beautiful that even a blurry, off-center photo of a sunset is beautiful? That's Pavement, writing songs so gorgeous they can play them as sloppily as they want and not ruin the beauty." He wasn't buying it, which is fair. Explaining a band to someone is usually about as successful as explaining a joke, plus that's why God made headphones. And thank God, because I dove into the rust-colored swamp of Slanted and Enchanted with a passion commensurate with my guy's revulsion.
The buzz that preceded Slanted and Enchanted shouldn't be undersold. After Nevermind, the search for the next Nirvana turned record execs into bounty hunters and amplified all buzz tenfold. But all that buzz was justified by the songs on Slanted and Enchanted, which quickly revealed itself as a ramshackle masterwork, an adamantly lo-fi pastiche of arty noise, sunny melody, and ripped-off Fall riffs executed with dubious musicianship and laced with idiosyncratic lyricism. "Lies and betrayals/Fruit-covered nails/Electricity and lust" goes the first line of the second song, the gloriously shambling "Trigger Cut," which strings together a song's worth of oddly beguiling imagery before climaxing with a chorus of sha-la-las so lovely and funny you simultaneously laugh and blush. Which brings up what would become Pavement's primary identifier once the "next Nirvana" hype was confounded by the strange fruits of Slanted: Irony™. But that trademark is too limited a word to sum up the wit at play in Pavement, suggesting simple bait and switch rather than layered statements and musical jokes that give you goose bumps.
Of course, Slanted and Enchanted was just the start of the story. Pavement's 1994 follow-up Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain reintroduced Slanted's lo-fi multitrackers as a living, breathing band, captured at its friendliest and most melodic. (The great "Cut Your Hair" was the closest Pavement ever got to a hit song, while the greater "Gold Soundz" was the closest they ever got to a mid-'80s Cure cover.) Things got weird with 1995's Wowee Zowee, a sprawling 18-track tour of what sounded like every musical idea the band was entertaining at the time, from elegiac folk-rock ("We Dance") and jokey junk-punk ("Best Friend's Arm") to gorgeous stoner jams ("Grounded") and pristine slices of their classic lackadaisical majesty ("Rattled by the Rush," "AT&T"). Greeted with restrained appreciation upon its release, Wowee Zowee has only grown in stature, with many fans cherishing it as "the most Pavement-y Pavement album" and band leader Stephen Malkmus chalking up the whole Wowee Zowee experience to excessive pot smoking.
Then came the (relatively) mature years, with 1997's Brighten the Corners honing the excesses of Wowee Zowee into a classically structured rock album loaded with some of the bands greatest tracks ("Stereo," "Shady Lane," "Embassy Row," "Starlings of the Slipstream," the Spiral Stairs–led "Date with IKEA"), and 1999's Terror Twilight bringing the Pavement experiment to a fittingly melodic close, with a record that sounds like a Malkmus solo album, only way better than any of the actual Malkmus solo albums to come. Not long after the tour for Terror Twilight, Pavement broke up, Mr. Bach Lover and I broke up, and we all went our separate ways.
Now it's 2010, and I'm once again entrenched in a relationship with someone who doesn't share my appreciation of Pavement, who have regrouped in full (including hilarious extra guy/spirit animal Bob Nastanovich) for a reunion tour. The Northwest got an early peek of the fruits of this reunion at this spring's Sasquatch! Festival, where the freshly reunited Pavement filled a headlining slot with two hours of loving sloppiness. "They get away with it not just because nostalgia has made them untouchable, but because the songs are just so damn good," wrote Stranger music editor Eric Grandy from the scene, reiterating my 18-years-earlier defense of the band to my Bach-loving boyfriend and filling me with joy. Truly, the only way the Pavement reunion could soil the band's legacy is if the shows were too tidy and professional, with studious retreads of the band's shambling recordings and a general vibe of former Pavement members performing as a Pavement tribute band rather than Pavement reborn. The Sasquatch! show suggested that the reunion was exactly what I hoped it would be: the guys of Pavement coming together with all their sloppy, harmonious idiosyncrasies to bang their way through the beloved Pavement songbook.
Reports from the road remain heartening, citing a career-spanning set ranging from early EP treats to Terror Twilight highlights (and occasionally featuring the entirety of Slanted and Enchanted) and a band with a tangible, messy chemistry. "It was the kind of show that a fan expected in the late 1990s but the band, publicly splintering by the minute, couldn't quite manage," wrote the Los Angeles Times of Pavement's April show in Pomona, praising the 31-song set list and the "low-end rumble from drummer Steve West and bassist Mark Ibold that sometimes teased at the edges of destruction." Hot fucking damn—though it must be noted that aside from Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, Pavement have never made a crowd-pleasing gesture in their lives, and it'd be foolish to expect them to start now. Instead, I'm counting on a night of messy melody, cruddy noise, squirrelly beauty, aesthetic ambivalence, and inside jokes that make musical sense to outside ears—pure Pavement.