Welcome to Dissected, where we disassemble a band’s catalog, a director’s filmography, or some other critical pop-culture collection in the abstract. It’s exact science by way of a few beers. This time, we sort through the best and worst of your older cousin’s favorite band.
If any band begs for the Dissected treatment as defined above, it’s Pavement. Not because they like beer (although they do/did) or because we’ve already picked apart Stephen Malkmus’ solo discography (although it seems weird that we haven’t done the same with his most famous work) or because they’ve got a (sorta) new odds-and-end compilation out this week (although yeah, that happened).
No, the reason Pavement warrants, deserves, needs a Dissected article is because the band was loose. They were playful. They were wuh-wuh-wuh-weeeird!
But the more I started delving into their discography, the more nuance and — dare I say it — seriousness I discovered. Being a longtime fan, I of course already knew those things were there, but they often get overshadowed by the yelps, noise, and forgot-my-homework-so-let-me-throw-some-shit-together album art.
So in dissecting their discography, I tried to keep the many sides of the band in mind: their puckishness, their demented lyrics, and the effective, if usually brief, moments of melancholy and emotionalism that shone through it all. In the group’s well-publicized, fairly one-sided beef with Billy Corgan, The Great Pumpkin said that no one falls in love to Pavement’s music. I beg to differ. Not only do people fall in love to their music — they party to it, dance to it, fuck to it, write to it, veg out to it, laugh to it, play with their dog to it, and just about everything else. A couple things to keep in mind:
– I covered all of the extended plays in addition to the albums. To ignore the band’s shorter works — especially the first three EPs — would be skipping over an entire era of their sound. And to only cover their five full-lengths would have made for a really short article.
– Stephen Malkmus and guitarist/occasional frontman Scott Kannberg (aka Spiral Stairs) will never be completely straightforward lyricists. The beauty of their transformative vocabularies is that they sing with enough alternating urgency and casualness that the words end up sounding like normal conversation. So while there’s no way to say for sure what most of their songs are about, it’s fun to try. Whenever I offer a theory of what a song is about, it’s just that — a theory (unless otherwise noted).
– In my opinion, Pavement has a near-perfect discography. It’s not without its flaws (especially with their slapdash final EPs), but it seemed pointless to officially rank their work, as the glowing praise would have gotten boring.
Speaking of boring, enough from my critical ass. We’ve got one of the best bands in the world to talk about. So pour yourself a glass of extra dry Lancers, settle into your serpentine pad, and let’s begin (unless you’re too old to do so).
Senior Staff Writer
Slay Tracks (1933–1969) EP (1989)
“You sold us out and took it all” (song that should’ve been a hit): The first in Pavement’s trilogy of fidgety, low-fi EPs, Slay Tracks (1933–1969) relies way more on rattle than hum. Regardless, there are still hooks for those who want to find them beneath the static. One song, in particular, stands apart for having no fuzz at all — even in 1989, everything in “Box Elder” rang crystal clear: the fort-holding bass, the uncharacteristically straight drumming, and of course, a guitar line with all the sunniness of The Wedding Present, who recorded a cover of the song a year later without Pavement’s knowledge. Although angry at first (as they should have been), Malkmus and Kannberg (the only official members at the band’s genesis) eventually grew to appreciate the exposure brought to their scrappy little EP by a — at the time — much larger group. Maybe they’ll tour together one day.
“1 Sick Verse” (best rhyme): Malkmus wasn’t yet exhibiting the verbal acrobatics he’d start showing off on Slanted and Enchanted, but “Price Yeah”‘s climax of “No, they won’t have teeth to say I’m wrong/ I want a better bong” is more effective in its cryptic angst than most lyrics that came out of the grunge era — not that Pavement was anything close to grunge.
“Enough to make your ears twitch” (noisiest use of noise): Opener “You’re Killing Me” starts with six different types of static in just as many seconds before landing on a final squelch (akin to a snowy television screen) that more or less underscores the rest of the song.
“Hand me the drumstick, snare kick” (wildest Gary Young moment): Nearly a decade older than Malkmus and Kannberg, Young was an eccentric pot dealer and owner of Louder Than You Think, one of only two recording studios in Pavement’s then home base of Stockton, California. He also happened to be an incredible, if unrefined and unpredictable, drummer, much closer to a real-life version of Animal than Keith Moon, Steve Mitchell, or any other skin-man rumored to have inspired the famous Muppet.
Young volunteered to lay down some percussion for Pavement after hearing the minimalist tracks brought in by the duo, and “She Believes” captures his style most accurately. He takes it easy on the kick and cymbals, monolithically sticking to snare and floor tom until the three-minute mark. That’s when he explodes and whacks everything in sight, including some household objects that probably weren’t part of his drum kit at all. Actually, knowing Young, they probably were.
“Ask me if you want to be…fffucked” (most grotesque instance of sex): Eventually, Malkmus treated sex (which comes up in Pavement songs way more than you think) with the same surrealist — make that cubist — eye as Picasso and Dali, rendering his lewdness more evocative than squirmy. Early on, however, he kept it pretty nasty with “She Believes”. Sample lyric: “I told her I was free of disease/ And she believed.”
“You’re so beautiful to look at when you cry” (unexpected moment of emotion): Pavement’s music, while almost universally praised by critics, has always been noted as being void of emotion. I don’t buy it. Impenetrability can still carry emotional weight (especially when the hooks are so strong), and mystery aside, every album has at least one moment of soul-stirring clarity. Here, it’s once again “Box Elder”, where Malkmus fantasizes about leaving home. That’s a frustrated dream we can all relate to.
“Painted over paint” (crudeness of the album art): Kannberg was in charge of packaging Slay Tracks and didn’t have a clue how to do it. So, in a move that predates most underground EPs released in the ’90s, he drew something himself. While the only thing it brings to mind is homemade graph paper drawn on a sticky note, it’s a pretty accurate representation of the ramshackle music within and established the collage-type feel of much of the band’s artwork to come.
“Stop criticizing me” (verdict): Other than “Box Elder”, Slay Tracks isn’t the best entry point to Pavement. But once you’ve become a convert, it’s downright indispensable, proving that, even in the ’80s, Pavement’s not-so-grand vision of catchy chaos was already coming into focus.
Demolition Plot J-7 EP (1990)
“You sold us out and took it all”: “Spizzle Trunk” ain’t exactly radio-ready, but its rockabilly piano could have done wonders on-air had the whole thing been recorded with a little more polish.
“1 Sick Verse”: Even if Malkmus’ vocals on “Internal K-Dart” are buried so far beneath the space-battle guitars that you can’t tell what he’s saying, the song title alone is beautifully tripped out, bringing to mind some sort of fictional G.I. Joe weapon.
“Enough to make your ears twitch”: There’s enough squall on Demolition Plot J-7 to capsize a brigantine manned by a whole crew of Scott Wolfs (Wolves?). Just what the hell are those mechanized sounds at the beginning of “Forklift”? My guess would be a forklift (duh), but it could also be a gun getting assembled or a broke-ass indie band’s attempt to emulate the opening of KISS’ Detroit Rock City.
“Hand me the drumstick, snare kick”: Young actually sat out for Demolition Plot due to jealousy of Jason Fawkes, a drummer whom Kannberg had formed a new band with while Malkmus was away traveling. When SM returned, they decided to convert the tunes to Pavement tracks, with Fawkes sitting in on drums since he helped write the music. Apparently, things got so tense with Young while the band recorded at his studio that Fawkes ultimately walked after recording “Forklift”. Having pissed off both of their percussionists, Malkmus and Kannberg were left to drum on the rest of the EP themselves, which means there’s a whole lot of primordial thudding and not a whole lot of proper drumming.
“Ask me if you want to be…fffucked”: It’s hard to say for sure, but Malkmus’ trip to Vegas in “Forklift” just might end with him getting laid and robbed by a bunch of old ladies at the slot machines.
“Show me a word that rhymes with ‘Pavement’ and I won’t kill your parents”(most grotesque instance of violence): Malkmus treats violence (another topic that comes up in Pavement songs more often than you think) the same weird way he treats sex, and someone gets their hand stuck in the sink on “Perfect Depth”. Is there a garbage disposal in that sink? And does someone accidentally flip the On switch? It’s a Pavement song, so our answer is a resounding “maybe (baby)?”
“You’re so beautiful to look at when you cry”: With his hand stuck in the sink for so long, the protagonist of “Perfect Depth” has a lot of time to think about his romantic mistakes. So we feel bad for him. Plus, his hand is in a sink. And he probably gets it ground into hamburger.
“Painted over paint”: It’s actually one of Pavement’s starker, more cohesive, and less busy album covers — what looks like cobblestones filtered to resemble the surface of the moon.
“Stop criticizing me”: Due to the piecemeal way the songs were written, band turmoil, and Young’s absence on the album, Demolition Plot J-7 depends on empty noise to fill in the gaps even more so than its predecessor. There’s still enough of a pop crosshair on “Forklift”, “Spizzle Trunk”, and “Perfect Depth” to make it enjoyable, but there’s also a sense of grasping at static for enough material to comprise a full EP.
Perfect Sound Forever EP (1991)
“You sold us out and took it all”: While the title comes from a promise made by Sony in the 1980s regarding the quality of their compact discs, there are more than enough potential singles on this bite-sized EP (not even 12 minutes long!) to undercut such sly irony. “Angel Carver Blues/Mellow Jazz Docent” could have easily been a hit if Drag City had been a bigger label at the time. And if the title weren’t so long and strange.
“1 Sick Verse”: In “From Now On”, Malkmus repeatedly asks if he can “see the skin rot/ On a dog stray’s hide.” That doesn’t rhyme, but I love that he says “dog stray’s” and not “stray dog’s.”
“Enough to make your ears twitch”: Even though three of the seven tracks are noisy instrumentals, they’re short, and their cyclone never touches the more fully formed songs. For my money, “Heckler Spray” wins because I picture its queasy harmonics blasting Statler and Waldorf right out of their balcony in the Muppet Theater. That’s two! Two Muppet references in one article! Ah ah ah ah. Make that three.
“Hand me the drumstick, snare kick”: Young returns to the drums here for an uneasy truce and flexes his walloping fills (his greatest strength) on “Debris Slide”.
“Ask me if you want to be…fffucked”: Although Malkmus gives this command in “Angel Carver Blues”, “Home” takes this superlative by recalling a disturbing scene from Sam Shepard’s Pulitzer-winning play, Buried Child. Note how there’s never any actual sex, at least not in the traditional sense: “Stick your fingers in my mouth/ Pull back my lips and watch me smile.” Later, “Look below her nylon stockings/ Snapped the double notch and left untied.”
“…and I won’t kill your parents”: “Angel Carver Blues/Mellow Jazz Docent”, without a doubt. Blue Note Records even considered selling the second title at Starbucks, until the first title’s image of carving up an angel’s wings made them think otherwise. (note: this probably never happened)
“Painted over paint”: The sloppily thrown-together wreckage contains what looks like fuselage and the trusses of an outdoor stage. It’s as if the band was trying to offset their unstoppable progress toward sonic cohesion.
“Stop criticizing me”: It’s a cliche to riff on the record’s title at this point (Rob Jovanovic even used it for his Pavement biography), but it’s also a cliche for a reason. Perfect Sound Forever lives up to its title by tipping the noise-pop scales in favor of pop. But juuust slightly.
Slanted and Enchanted (1992)
“You sold us out and took it all”: Starting with this, their first proper LP, Pavement would release several singles for each album — not that many of them would chart. Still, “Summer Babe (Winter Version)” certainly should have. Maybe the lyrics about a girl eating her own fingers turned off mainstream listeners.
“1 Sick Verse”: If Malkmus were a superhero, he’d be an anthropomorphic thesaurus with muscular arms, a domino mask tied around the leather-bound cover, and a little cape. Slanted and Enchanted was the first time he fully stepped into this role, so it’s hard to choose the best, most elaborate lyric. “Conduit for Sale!” makes a good case for itself, though: “Imagine if you were Herr Barockter/ Alias and nobleman/ Son of son of sky, and of scion/ Part of his rich inheritance parceled and generous divorce, sentence forthwith being.” Also, if you Google “Conduit for Sale,” you get several advertisements of actual conduits for sale.
“Beside the spiral staircase” (Scott Kannberg songs): From here on out, every Pavement full-length featured at least one song where Kannberg took lead vocals. Unlike George Harrison or Rick Danko, he never got to the point where he made more than a handful of his own contributions, but he did always make them count without deviating too far from the album’s groove. On Slanted, “Two States” cuts through the woeful dust trudged up by “Here” with chant-like vocals and some playful allusions to the Civil War. It takes a band like Pavement to make the Civil War playful.
“Hand me the drumstick, snare kick”: Young’s two drum roll bursts at the 2:27 mark of “Summer Babe” seem to be the only thing keeping the song from falling apart. Or are they the only thing keeping it from coming back together?
“Ask me if you want to be…fffucked”: From the phantasmagorical “Perfume V”: “In my bed at the break of dawn/ She shivered like a vein slashed bright and new.” What the hell happened in that bed?
“…and I won’t kill your parents”: Another angel gets cut in two on “No Life Singed Her”.
“You’re so beautiful to look at when you cry”: “Here” is the obvious moment of emotional clarity, but album closer “Our Singer” also deserves to be called out. The slowest and most minor-key songs on the album, they both seem to deal with an artist who can’t quite get to the next plateau of success.
“Painted over paint”: The band name and album title look scrawled in whiteout, but never messy enough to obscure the central image of piano keys snaking upward and out of frame. Manic, yet measured, which is a pretty good way to describe the album.
“Stop criticizing me”: The effective end of Pavement 1.0, Slanted and Enchanted marked the last time the band was so effortless in their spontaneity. That’s not to say later works aren’t surprising in their own right (Brighten the Corners will always be my personal favorite). But there’s less of a freewheeling atmosphere when compared to their first LP; Malkmus himself has described it possessing an “unrepeatable energy.” From here on out, the wildness would always feel obtained after trial and error rather than randomly unearthed.
Watery, Domestic EP (1992)
“You sold us out and took it all”: The warm thump and faux-cool chorus of “Frontwards” proved so irresistible that it was covered 15 years later by Los Campesinos!, who even had the sense to release it as a single.
“1 Sick Verse”: “Cheerleaders single file/ Perfect smiles unaffected/ And you won’t forget our color’s blue” is probably the only Pavement lyric that could be a school cheer.
“A special new band” (personnel changes): Watery, Domestic introduced listeners to chilled-over bassist Mark Ibold (later of Sonic Youth) and auxiliary percussionist/quasi-keyboardist/professional shouter Bob Nastanovich. Both would soon become vital parts of the band, but on Watery, Nastanovich was relegated to helping an increasingly erratic, undependable, and zonked out Young keep time. It’s no surprise Young was asked to leave before the recording of the next album. To their credit, Young and the rest of Pavement have remained friendly over the years, even reuniting for a hometown show back in 2010.
“You’re so beautiful to look at when you cry”: Lyrically, “Shoot the Singer (1 Sick Verse)” isn’t the most decipherable thing in the world, but the fadeout takes on considerable emotional weight thanks to a spike in Ibold’s bass. For a brief moment, the ponderous hum overtakes everything before Malkmus escorts us out with some “La da da da”s that sound like he’s wordlessly mulling over some kind of difficult decision. Maybe it has something to do with his drummer.
“Painted over paint”: The rooster on the cover actually looks pretty lush and thought out, until you realize it’s stolen right from Ambergris’ self-titled album — then defaced with chalk.
“Stop criticizing me”: These days, most EPs are compilations of b-sides, remixes, and throwaway tracks, making Watery, Domestic an artifact of a time when extended plays were treated with just as much care and vision as their full-length counterparts. Each of its five songs have a nagging sense of dread that creeps into the lyrics and sometimes the tones, which once again, can probably be attributed to the addition of an honest-to-god bassist and the band fretting over what to do with Young. Let’s not forget, he wasn’t just their drummer. He was their friend.
Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain (1994)
“You sold us out and took it all”: “Cut Your Hair” was the band’s only single to chart, breaking the Top 10 on Billboard’s Hot Modern Rock Tracks and receiving a decent amount of airplay on MTV. The kicker? It’s a satire of bands changing their images to get more listeners. Funny how two of Pavement’s most popular songs (the other being “Range Life”) directly poke fun at the popularity contest that is the music industry.
“1 Sick Verse”: The most attention Pavement ever got in the ’90s was from a single lyric on Crooked Rain. Billy Corgan was so offended by “Out on tour with the Smashing Pumpkins/ Nature’s kids/ They don’t have no function/ I don’t understand what they mean/ and I could really give a fuck” that he infamously prevented Pavement from playing Lollapalooza that year. That only makes the words even funnier, as does the following diss towards Stone Temple Pilots, who were much better sports about the whole thing. Elegant bachelors, indeed.
“A special new band”: Crooked Rain was the band’s most polished album yet, thanks in no small part to new drummer Steve West. While not as unhinged as Young behind the kit, West still brought enough flourishes and signature shifts to keep things interesting, all while locking down a sense of stability that helped Pavement pay homage to the band’s they were skewering (see above, plus album closer “Fillmore Jive”).
“Beside the spiral staircase”: Like “Two States” before it, Kannberg’s one contribution, “Hit the Plane Down”, dabbles in repetition for a song that’s bigger on atmosphere than evocative lyrics. I can’t find it anywhere, but I remember reading an interview where Malkmus explained that the song was a reference to the horror film The Hills Have Eyes. This would make sense, given that most of Crooked Rain seems to take place in the desert (the subtitle to the expanded edition was L.A.’s Desert Origins).
“Those who sleep with electric guitars” (most glorious noise throwback): Even if the band would never return to the saturated noise experimentation of the early days, “Silence Kid” (often misread as “Silence Kit”) kicks off Crooked Rain with a conversation between Ibold’s bass and Malkmus’ guitar. It’s a Peter and the Wolf-type approach, with the bass taking on the air of an imposing father and the guitar embodying the scolded son. There’s no way in hell Pavement planned it that way, but that’s what I always think of.
“…and I won’t kill your parents”: Shooting a plane down in the middle of the desert is pretty damn violent. And there are no survivors!
“You’re so beautiful to look at when you cry”: Not even a quirky “z” or a silly music video could hide the fact that “Gold Soundz” is probably about the demise of a relationship. Malkmus wouldn’t flirt this much with a straight-up breakup song until “Spit on a Stranger” five years later.
“Painted over paint”: Man, that’s one ugly album cover. The hands were pulled from a photo in National Geographic, but the surrounding scribbles and tea-shaded paper turn any exotic worldliness into an ad for cheap jewelry. Pavement, I’m sure, wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Stop criticizing me”: Along with Watery, Domestic and its easily digestible length, Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain is where anyone looking to get into Pavement should start. The polish works because of the attack on celebrity, the attack on celebrity works because of the comedy, and the comedy works because … hell, comedy always works.
Rattled by la Rush EP (1995)
“You sold us out and took it all”: The (almost) title track, “Rattled by the Rush”, uses its own name for a chanted coda at the song’s end, a coda that could also double as a motto for Gen X, at least in 1995. Remember all the crazy shit that happened the year before?
“1 Sick Verse”: “I don’t need a timekeeper/ I don’t need an inter-locuter/ And baby you’ll look a little cuter” is the indie equivalent to Ozzy rhyming “masses” with “masses,” only a lot brainier.
“Ask me if you want to be…fffucked”: “False Skorpion” could very well be a mating dance from the point of view of the titular arachnid.
“That’s total House of Pain. That’s not a good thing!”: In one of the live versions of “Easily Fooled” (available on the Wowee Zowee: Sordid Sentinels Edition), Malkmus says this in response to his own pesudo-rapping. He’s just joking around, but it’s an astute observation that suggests his rhythms are closer to hip-hop than people think.
“Painted over paint”: Another collage that feels castoff and sloppy, before you remember that it ties into Pavement’s fascination with the desert.
“Stop criticizing me”: By simple virtue of being the companion EP to Wowee Zowee, Rattled by la Rush has a whim about it that separates it from the weightier Watery, Domestic. It’s still fun, though, if somewhat slight. Also, it started a pattern of blurring the lines between Pavement’s EPs and singles, which would make Shady Lane, the Spit on a Stranger 7-inch, and their final release, Major Leagues, feel even slighter.
Wowee Zowee (1995)
“You sold us out and took it all”: It’s actually the scratched-yet-soaring melody of Kannberg’s “Kennel District” that feels most in line with what was on the radio in the alternative era.
“1 Sick Verse”: We’ve already mentioned “Rattled by the Rush”, but it’s worth mentioning again, if only for this bit of whacked-out poetry: “Getting off on the candelabra/ We call her Barbara/ Breeding like larva/ She rabble-rousing, dental surf combat/ Get out those hardhats and sing us some scat.”
“Beside the spiral staircase”: Aside from the wonderfully muffed-out “Kennel District”, Kannberg closes out the album with the throwaway ditty “Western Homes”. I mean “throwaway” as a good thing. After the screeching head trip of “Half a Canyon”, you need a palate cleanser.
“Westie Can Drum” (best Steve West moment): One of Wowee Zowee’s most distinct characteristics is the constant switching of time signatures, most notably on “Extradition” (twang gives way to slowed-down cartoon laughter), “Best Friend’s Arm” (aggressive barking gives way to a sludgy chorus), and “Half a Canyon” (range-roving classicism gives way to full-blown psychedelia). West deserves a whole lotta credit for accommodating the madness while never going off the rails. Also, Young comes back for a cameo of sorts — the album is named after one of his favorite exclamations.
“Ask me if you want to be…fffucked”: Malkmus wards off the fear of getting castrated in opener “We Dance” by hanging out with his lady, which is … sweet, I guess?
“…and I won’t kill your parents”: Let’s actually talk about a lyric that doesn’t get violent when it very easily could. “Brinx Job” describes an armored-car robbery that goes off without a hitch. “We got the money,” squeals Malkmus in falsetto. “It’s so funny.” It’s his own bloodless version of Reservoir Dogs — a heist with a happy ending.
“You’re so beautiful to look at when you cry”: It’s not exactly clear what the dire situation is in “Grounded”, but Malkmus laments about boys dying in the streets. It’s said without a shred of detachment or irony, making his empathy easily discerned even when the meaning of the words is not.
“Painted over paint”: Seemingly taking a cue from the National Geographic origins of Crooked Rain, Malkmus chose a painted replica of a photograph published in Life magazine, circa 1972. And no, the original print didn’t contain the words “Pavement?” or “Wowee Zowee!”, but a caption about an Arab family enjoying their midday rest. When first laying eyes on the album, the cartoonishness made me think the figures weren’t supposed to be people at all, but primordial humans akin to Stink on Land of the Lost.
“Stop criticizing me”: Instead of continuing the more accessible trajectory they started on Crooked Rain, Pavement took a pot-fueled step into more adventurous territory with Wowee Zowee. As our own Nina Corcoran described it best in her recent 20-year retrospective, the album “was their chance to get impressionistic yet aloof, intentionally uneasy yet entirely unpredictable.” Kinda like that album cover.
Pacific Trim EP (1996)
“You sold us out and took it all”: “Give It a Day” finds Malkmus doing the House of Pain thing again, which could have had huge hit potential in 1996.
“1 Sick Verse”: Closer “I Love Perth” rattles off some impressive wordplay: “Our hearts were blanketed with it all/ And then I took off the blanket and saw/ The pretty shawl you bought for me.”
“Ask me if you want to be…fffucked”: “Why won’t anybody fuck me?” scream a group of hoodlums at the end of “Gangsters and Pranksters”. They’ve even got a bunch of Harvard LSD! Sounds like a Thomas Pynchon novel.
“…and I won’t kill your parents”: Whoever Malkmus is playing on “Saganaw” wants to avoid violence. The song’s vaguely Middle-Eastern drone kicks up the image of someone sitting cross-legged in the desert, using calmness to stave off a caravan of approaching barbarians.
“And you’re my fact-checking cuz” (best Bob Nasatnovich moment): While we know the lineup on Pacific Trim consisted only of Malkmus, West, and Nastanovich, it’s hard to tell who’s playing what. I’d like to think that the nearly identical keyboard swells on “Gangsters and Pranksters” and “Saganaw” are being plunked out by The Nast. Does anyone in the band call him The Nast? They should.
“Painted over paint”: A near-naked couple flying through an ancient city on a dragon is actually pretty straightforward for a Pavement cover. I can’t help but wonder if the band was inspired by the otherworldly pterodactyl artwork of the late, great Moebius, perhaps animated by Hanna-Barbera.
“Stop criticizing me”: If Pacific Trim sounds improvised, that’s because a lot of it probably was; the EP was only recorded because a Silver Jews session got canceled by Dave Berman, and Malkmus didn’t want to waste the money they had already spent. As a result, the songs are some of the most spontaneous and original in the Pavement catalog. Even better, they don’t center around a single from an already existing album, making it the final Pavement EP of completely new material.
Brighten the Corners (1997)
“You sold us out and took it all”: “Old to Begin” rarely gets talked about as one of the great Pavement songs, but it’s the one that first got its claws into me, even after hearing “Stereo”, “Cut Your Hair”, and “Range Life”.
“1 Sick Verse”: In “We Are Underused”, “Let’s thank the host/ You’ve been such a great host/ The roast was just so perfectly prepared” starts a dinner party that goes from very boring to very gross in just a few lines.
“Beside the spiral staircase”: Kannberg continues to be the band’s secret weapon with his two best songs, both of which are heavy on steak-thick distortion and suburban dread. Their titles even point to depressing romances with decidedly suburban products: “Date with IKEA” and “Passat Dream”.
“You’re so beautiful to look at when you cry”: Fantastical apocalypse runs amok in Brighten the Corners, from the demon-razing car in “Stereo” to the foreign Mordor in “Embassy Row”. But I suspect this was a symptom of the band approaching its end days as opposed to a comment on the end of the world itself. And there’s no better swan song than the downtrodden final track, “Fin”. Sure, there would be one more album and a handful of EPs after Brighten the Corners, but this feels like the more appropriate ending: a postscript title and elegant fadeout worthy of an art-house French film from the ’60s.
“And you’re my fact-checking cuz”: Nastanovich is immortalized with that distinguished title in “Stereo”, when he confirms to Malkmus that Rush singer Geddy Lee, despite his stratospheric high register, does indeed speak like an ordinary guy. I wish I had a fact-checking cuz in my life. How else are you supposed to know these types of things?
“Painted over paint”: The diamondback snake, comic-book eyes, and skeleton dancing with a lady’s shadow could easily be a messy collage a la Crooked Rain, but it all ends up clean and angular thanks to some nifty wraparound perspective from the artist.
“Stop criticizing me”: You’ll notice this is the first album where I’ve omitted both the sex and violence categories. That’s because in Brighten the Corners, so many people (possibly the band themselves) have moved to the suburbs. That’s not to say the suburbs can’t be violent or even sexy, but the characters in these songs all seem to be resigned to their new lifestyles as the world darkens around them. The sex becomes boring, and the violence rains down from the environment as opposed to from another person, which seems boring because it’s so uncontrollable. Maybe deadening is the better word.
If that all sounds like a drag, rest assured it’s not. Malkmus, while not as rough around the edges as the early days, is still dynamic, plus there’s a sense of charismatic inertia to Brighten the Corners: the band has to keep experimenting in order to keep moving. Even if they know it’s the end, they’re going to do their damnedest to make sure everything stays interesting. Maybe it’s their best because it’s that rarest of things — the album about getting old that never actually gets old itself.
Shady Lane EP (1997)
“You sold us out and took it all”: If “Shady Lane” never had a shot on MTV, it would have surely been successful as a Lancers jingle.
“1 Sick Verse”: Well, since we’ve already mentioned it, “Blind date with the chancer/ We had oysters and dry Lancers/ And the check, when it arrived, we went Dutch, Dutch, Dutch, Dutch.” There’s a reason why, other than Slanted and Enchanted, Brighten the Corners (where “Shady Lane” originally appeared) was the only Pavement release to come with a lyrics sheet.
“Ask me if you want to be…fffucked”: “Wanna Mess You Around” has a pretty slack-jawed libido, even as libidos go: “I wanna fuck around/ I wanna fuck around/ I wanna fuck around”. Later on, the guy in “No Tan Lines” can’t wait to get down to San Tropez over spring breeeaaak for some evenly sunned tail.
“You’re so beautiful to look at when you cry”: That’s another nugget from “Shady Lane”, so there you go.
“Painted over paint”: It’s as if we’re on the inside of the destroyed fuselage from Perfect Sound Forever.
“Stop criticizing me”: Shady Lane’s triviality points to Pavement running out of steam in a way that’s much more depressing than the should-be-depressing-but-it’s-not subject matter of Brighten the Corners (and even Terror Twilight, for that matter). Of the four songs, one’s a single that had already been released, the other’s an alternate country take of “Type Slowly”, and the final two are throwaway tracks about boning. Only “Cherry Area”, with its New Wave keys and perpetually stalled backbeat, feels like a true original and not a retread.
I guess you could chalk this up to the band just wanting to throw something together, but seeing as they once put so much thought into the unifying element of every EP, even minor ones like Demolition Plot J-7 and Pacific Trim, you can’t help but wonder if this was an indicator of Pavement feeling tired. In fact, it’s been said by the band that the end of the Brighten the Corners cycle was when the band really started to fray due to other creative pursuits, starting families, and plain-old exhaustion. Lucky for us listeners, they had one more act of greatness in them.
Terror Twilight (1999)
“You sold us out and took it all”: Like “Gold Soundz”, “Spit on a Stranger” looks back on a relationship that’s gone kaput — maybe a relationship with a band. Anyway, it’s got hooks galore and Nickel Creek covered it.
“1 Sick Verse”: A short phrase, not a verse, from “Cream of Gold” always stands out to me: “bleeding beige,” because I associate it with ghosts. It would make sense that specters from a past era would be sepia, and their blood or ectoplasm or what have you would almost certainly be beige.
“Beside the spiral staircase”: While Kannberg doesn’t have any solo compositions here, he trades verses with Malkmus (and, in an unprecedented move, Mark Ibold!) in the beginning of album closer “Carrot Rope”. It’s worth pointing out that Kannberg’s decreased vocal involvement wasn’t for lack of trying. “For Sale: The Preston School of Industry” (which ended up being the namesake of his later solo project) and one other song were supposedly kept off the album at the insistence of Malkmus. Malkmus, for his part, eventually recognized that he was feeling trapped in the band and wanted to focus on a solo career (more on that in a bit).
“Ask me if you want to be…fffucked”: Terror Twilight has a reputation of being Pavement’s tamest album, and that’s true, musically speaking — the tempos are sturdier and there’s much less yowling, despite a ripping harmonica solo (?!) from Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood. But the lyrics? Well the lyrics go to some filthy fucking places. “Carrot Rope” might even be about a pedophile! “Hey, little boy/ Do you want to see what’s in my pocket or not?” No thanks, Uncle Steven.
“…and I won’t kill your parents”: This sucker’s violent, too! “You Are a Light” (“Watch out for the gypsy children in electric dresses/ They’re insane/ I hear they live in crematoriums and smoke your remains”) makes me never want to go to Spain, and the slowed down, far superior version of “The Hexx” (available on Brighten the Corners: Nicence Creedence Edition) sounds straight out of a horror film.
“You’re so beautiful to look at when you cry”: Someone literally does cry on this album, and her name is Ann.
“Painted over paint”: Remember what I said about ghosts? That sure as hell looks like a ghost walking a dog. Or a hellhound!
“Stop criticizing me”: I was going to write something about how emotionally heavy this album is because it’s Pavement’s last, but as you can tell from above, the thing I remember most from Terror Twilight is how demented it is. What’s funny is that after writing this, Wowee Zowee and Slanted and Enchanted both feel like sadder albums to me, when they’re actually revered for being the opposite. Even Terror Twilight’s title comes from a macabre place — twilight is the time of day when half of the drivers on the road turn on their headlights, and the other half don’t, which results in the most accidents.
But I digress. Whether the various elements of Terror Twilight scare the shit out of you or not, the lyrics prove that, even when they had run out of momentum and had to be practically forced by producer Nigel Godrich to come up with new material (the band reportedly was more concerned with playing Scrabble than recording) — even when music didn’t sound quite like itself, Pavement was still Pavement.
Major Leagues EP (1999)
“You sold us out and took it all”: “The Killing Moon” has real single potential, but that’s because it’s a cover of Echo and the Bunnymen, so let’s go with the title track, even if it’s admittedly hard to picture a sea of teenagers singing “Magic Christians chew the rind.”
“1 Sick Verse”: Also from the title track: “You kiss like a rock/ But you know I need it anyway.”
“You’re so beautiful to look at when you cry”: The whole affair (two different versions of “Major Leagues”, two covers (Echo and the Bunnymen and “The Classical” by The Fall) has a cut-and-paste nature that feels pretty sad, or at least defeated.
“Painted over paint”: A simple photograph of a forest, and their least interesting album art.
“Stop criticizing me”: It feels strange to end this on a stitched-together bunt rather than a bona fide grand slam, but I ain’t no revisionist, and that’s how it happened. During the Terror Twilight tour, Malkmus’ bandmates could tell he was becoming increasingly detached. After some urging from Nastanovich, who called a band meeting, their frontman finally admitted he didn’t want to do it anymore.
But don’t cry (especially if your name is Ann)! The band members reunited for a successful tour in 2010, a Terror Twilight reissue is supposedly in the works (don’t hold your breath), and Kannberg joined Malkmus at one of his solo shows last year for a throwback performance of “Stereo”. Best of all, each of the band members has been game to talk about the Secret History compilation released this week. It’s unlikely we’ll ever get any new Pavement music again, but it’s good to see the guys staying chummy after all these years. After all, it’s not like their breakup was spurred by an overdose, suicide, or some other cataclysmic event, as is the case with many other rock bands (even some of their peers). It’s just another example of Pavement stumbling to the (probably out-of-sync) beat of their own drum. So lest we conclude this article crying into our empty wine glasses, let’s finish with a spirited exclamation from “False Skorpion”. One…two…three…”Fuckin’ Pavement!”