Pavement were, hands down, one of my favorite bands ever. They broke up shortly after this review was written. However, they reunited last year and toured the world, selling out venues wherever they landed. As I understand it, though, they have no current plans to record together, or to stay reunited. But you never know...
Actually, given the mediocre sameness of most of what gets played on commercial radio these days, it’s a great compliment that radio seems to have given up on Pavement, and vice versa. While too many of their contemporaries sing of strangled masculine angst, Pavement makes idiosyncratic grooves on subjects like water politics, trench warfare, architecture and, yes, the mediocre sameness of contemporary rockers. They blend Stephen Malkmus’ oblique lyrics and improbable rhymes (my favorite: “men in dashikis/and their leftist weeklies”) with a cheerful eclecticism that embraces free jazz and bluegrass as well as the whole of rock history.
Pavement started in Stockton, California in 1989 when Malkmus began making homemade tapes with his hometown pal Scott Kannberg. The low-tech recordings generated some major critical buzz and spawned scores of imitators. By the time they released their first album on Matador Records, 1991’s Slanted and Enchanted, Pavement was the object of serious courtship from major labels.
At this juncture, the Pavement lads faced two viable career options: jump ship like REM did, sharpen their style for a mass audience and, well, tour the world playing in baseball stadiums. Or they could follow the example set by indie elders Sonic Youth, who had flirted with mainstream accessibility but found it a poor fit (or as Jerry Garcia once put it, “We tried to sell out but nobody was buying!”). Sonic Youth continues to make music that pleases them and their audience, but the majors have long since stopped calling.
Much to the consternation of drummer Gary Young, Pavement decided to stay with Matador and keep playing in the minor leagues. Young was replaced with Steve West, and Pavement went on to make a series of strange and wonderful albums, none of which have sold more than 200,000 copies. Matador signed a distribution deal with Capitol Records, but recently bought back that chunk of themselves and are once again truly independent.
And Pavement are as independent as ever, but seem to have decided to stick with it for the long haul. Early Pavement songs were like onions: they peeled apart after repeated listening to reveal indelible melodies buried under layers of fuzz and tape hiss. They claimed that they weren’t trying to sound low-fidelity on purpose, but I think they’re lying.
Likewise, Malkmus claims to dash off his lyrics at the last possible minute like a college term paper. I think he’s lying about that, too – he has a habit of lying to journalists. But if you take him at his word, the random surreality and studied lack of narrative serve the music quite nicely, allowing both the singer and the singee (that’s you) to make connections they might otherwise not have.
When I saw Pavement in Austin during my honeymoon in 1997, I found they had honed their instrumental attack considerably over previous tours. Like good indie rockers, they never emphasized virtuosity, but over the years it’s become harder to conceal. Somehow the band had acquired a group mind, that rare, almost telepathic quality that I’ve seen only in bands like NRBQ, Oregon, Art Ensemble of Chicago, Sonic Youth and the Dead.
In the meantime, the young pranksters had acquired wives and families as well as a devoted audience that had found them one way or another despite the zero airplay. So when asked what the new album would sound like, Kannberg replied only that it would be pleasing to Pavement fans. And that it is, though by now the onion has been cooked quite nicely in a 24-track recording studio with the help of Nigel Godrich, who has previously twisted the knobs for Beck and Radiohead.
Back in the day, Andre Breton, the father of surrealism, once remarked that the most surrealist thing you could do was go for a walk, because by doing so you unite all sorts of unrelated elements by the mere fact of your presence. That may still be so, (though you have to wonder what Breton could do with a sofa and a remote), but I’m guessing a close second would be to take a walk downtown and watch these old boys put their jigsaw puzzle of a music together onstage. And who knows, you might not be able to see them on a small stage forever. Or did they have something else in mind when they sang “Bring on the Major Leagues?”