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Pavement

      Slanted and Enchanted (Matador, 1992)
     Watery, Domestic (EP) (Matador, 1992)
     Westing (By Musket and Sextant) (Drag City, 1993)
      Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain (Matador, 1994)
     Wowee Zowee (Matador, 1995)
     Pacific Trim (Matador, 1996)
      Brighten the Corners (Matador, 1997)
     Terror Twilight (Matador, 1999)
      Slanted and Enchanted: Luxe and Reduxe (Matador, 2002)
      Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain: LA's Desert Origins (Matador, 2004)
     Wowee Zowee: Sordid Sentinentals (Matador, 2005)
     Brighten The Corners: Nicene Creedence (Matador, 2007)

Oh, the summer of '92. Nirvana was on the radio. Corporate rock was dead. The end of the Reagan-Bush era was so close we could taste it. We were young and in love and the world was changing. All summer long, we sang along with the songs of Pavement, and we knew every word we sang was true, even the song that went "Lies and betrayals/Fruit-covered nails/Electricity and lust." Slanted and Enchanted was so damn good, no one even cared if Pavement would ever make another album, let alone go on to a decadelong run as the great American rock band of the Nineties. But they did.

Two guitar boys from Stockton, CA, Stephen Malkmus and Spiral Stairs, headed into the garage studio of their hippie drummer, Gary Young, and knocked off a few songs for a laugh. As Pavement, they revamped the avant-noise experiments of Sonic Youth and Big Black, but goosed them with playful energy, wiseass humor, stolen guitar hooks, and unironically beautiful sha-la-la melodies. For all the art-punk excesses and lyrical goofs, the album flowed like a Buddy Holly song. The guys never thought anyone would hear it, but Slanted and Enchanted shook up the rock underground and became one of the Nineties most influential albums, inspiring countless imitations (not mentioning any names, weezer blur).

Pavement was already making noise before Slanted on three limited-edition indie vinyl EPs, later collected on the excellent Westing (By Musket and Sextant) CD. First came Slay Tracks 1933-1969, featuring the jangly breakup tune "Box Elder," followed by the heavier Demolition Plot J-7, which had the hard-sludging "Forklift" and the odd love ballad "Perfect Depth." Over a wave of lo-fi guitar fuzz, Malkmus warbled plaintively, "I wasted all your precious time…I wasted it all on you." Singing about girls? On an indie-rock seven-inch? It was true. The 10-inch Perfect Sound Forever was just unbelievable, with "Debris Slide" celebrating and parodying 10 years of hardcore pretension in under two minutes. Pavement was a breath of fresh air, bringing miles of style to an indie-rock scene starved for a little excitement and, to the band's surprise, stumbling across a real audience.

Slanted and Enchanted was even better than anybody had hoped. Malkmus and Spiral Stairs had the songs to turn their homemade tape of guitar clatter into a full-blown California fantasy of girls and boys dreaming big on the ridge where summer ends. It was the sound of sweet suburban boys who loved the Velvet Underground's "The Black Angel's Death Song" without ever wondering what the words meant. "Zurich Is Stained," "In the Mouth a Desert," "Trigger Cut," "Here"—these songs still hold up as some of the freshest, funniest indie-rock gold sounds ever recorded.

Slanted sold something like 100,000 copies, an astronomical number for a small-town band on an indie label. Pavement started touring with bassist Mark Ibold and second drummer, backup singer, and onstage booty shaker Bob Nastanovich, an old friend from Malkmus' college days in Charlottesville, VA. The Watery, Domestic EP followed, featuring four cleanly recorded tunes as great as anything on Slanted, especially "Texas Never Whispers." The 10th-anniversary Slanted and Enchanted reissue documents Pavement on a roll in 1991 and 1992, when even its lackadaisacal throwaways were touched with greatness. The collection has B-sides, BBC sessions, Watery, Domestic, and a December 1992 gig in London. The rarities include three of Pavement's best songs: "Circa 1762," "Greenlander," and the woozy space-guitar ballad "The Secret Knowledge of Backroads."

Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain was a daring move—instead of consolidating its noise-rock cred, Pavement got together in a real studio as a real band. Malkmus wrote an album's worth of juicy melodies, with the guitars ringing and chiming in emotional stray-slack surges. It's the band's most immediately lovable music, and "Cut Your Hair" even became a modest MTV hit. "Range Life" dabbles in a country-rock tinge that comes from living near too many college-town parrot-head bars, and like most of the other songs it waves goodbye to youth with ironic wit. Between "Gold Soundz," "Silence Kid," and "Fillmore Jive," Crooked Rain is practically a concept album about turning 28.

Wowee Zowie is Pavement's most divisive moment: It turned off the fans who'd come on board with Crooked Rain, but many diehards call it their favorite. Pavement breathed in the mellow California air and went all soft and woogly, ditching any last trace of noise for 18 eccentric tracks that range from twee folk ditties to lazy instrumental doodles. When it's bad it's embarrassing, but in true White Album style, the overall what-the-fuck? effect adds to the fun of "Black Out," "Kennel District," "Father to a Sister of Thought," and other highlights. "Brinx Job" really blows, however. The best is "AT&T," which has nothing to do with the phone company—it's a breathy love song to a groovy, groovy kitty.

Brighten the Corners was a song album, high on the guitar power and group interaction that Wowee Zowee lacked. For some, it was too smooth, but by now Pavement was an avowed ballad band that only played rockers as filler; the ballads never got any more beautiful than "Old to Begin" or "Starlings in the Slipstream." Malkmus proves himself the great guitar romantic of an era replete with them, his voice barely afloat on a sea of girl worship, scared shitless by sexual attraction but sensible enough to let himself feel awestruck by it anyway. His words are funny in their sentimental way, or sentimental in their funny way, and as always, they accrue emotional meaning by flowing through his voice and guitar. The solo at the end of "Fin" is a real corker.

Terror Twilight was the same album with fewer songs and some really bad harmonica solos. Pavement soon fell apart, as haphazardly as it had come together. Spiral Stairs, using his real name, Scott Kannberg, started a new project, the Preston School of Industry. Ibold joined Sonic Youth. Malkmus made solo records with his new Portland band, the Jicks, and kept playing in David Berman's band, Silver Jews. The 2002 DVD The Slow Century features a documentary, choice live slop, and the immortal video for "Gold Soundz."

Pavement scattered great songs on singles and compilations, including some of their finest: "Strings of Nashville," "Harness Your Hopes," "Easily Fooled," "No Tan Lines," and Kannberg's "Coolin' by Sound." The two best Terror Twilight songs, "Major Leagues" and "Spit on a Stranger," came out on singles with B-sides that add up to a stronger unit than the actual album. They gave away "Nail Clinic" (on the 1994 Hey Drag City comp), "Sensitive Euro Man" (on the 1996 I Shot Andy Warhol soundtrack) and "Greelander" (on the 1993 pro-choice benefit Born To Choose). The 1993 AIDS benefit No Alternative had their strange R.E.M. tribute "Unseen Power of the Picket Fence" ("'Time After Time' was my least favorite song!/'Time After Time' was my least favorite song!").

Pacific Trim has three stellar tunes, including "Give It a Day," the best song ever written about the sex drive of Cotton Mather's daughter. Matador released these songs as part of their essential Pavement deluxe editions—instead of the usual real-album plus bonus-bait split, each of these two-disc packages thrived on a sense of playful spiritual unity. Each was stuffed with green-around-the-gills goodies that hadn't even been heard by hardcore tape traders. Ten years after Pavement split up, they announced a reunion tour, as Matador celebrated with a single-disc compilation, but it's safe to say that if you have any taste at all for this band and their never-duplicated style of fucked-up guitar splendor, one disc won't suffice. Also of note is DJ N-Wee's remix of Pavement with Jay-Z, The Slack Album—you haven't heard Jigga spit "Encore" until you've heard him do it to the slack-ass drum wallop of "In The Mouth A Desert."

Portions of this album guide appeared in The New Rolling Stone Album Guide (Fireside, 2004).

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

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