Happy 20th birthday to Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, Pavement's most beloved, most surprising, most perfect album. Even devout Pavement fans were caught off guard by the lush weirdness of it — so devoid of feedback, so not lo-fi, so rock & roll, openly aspiring to pastoral beauty and lyricism and hippie shit like that. Suddenly these art-punk jokers turned into a real band, gushing with almost insultingly gorgeous melodies. It's Pavement's most popular album, yet it's probably their least influential, since if you're going to copy Pavement, Wowee Zowee is a lot easier to pull off — who the hell would try to write another "Gold Soundz" or "Elevate Me Later"?
I first heard it in mid-December 1993, visiting New York to interview Juliana Hatfield for a music magazine with four letters in its name. After lunch, back at the Atlantic offices, Juliana's publicist happened to mention he had the new Pavement album. "Lunged across the desk" would be a bit strong, but I did persuade him to put it on and I sat there the rest of the afternoon feeling my brain melt into my sneakers. He dubbed me the first three songs on Side Two, and flying back home that night, I gulped airplane tears rewinding "Gold Soundz" and "Range Life," praying my Walkman batteries would hold out until Virginia. Since their first EP I'd liked every Pavement record more than the last, but this chalice was a special one, made of gold.
"A concept album about turning 28," I called it at the time in the Village Voice. It's also their West Coast album, celebrating a fantasy California full of boys and girls who sleep with electric guitars, Range Roving with the cinema stars, a land where youth lasts forever, or at least until that Walkman fades. The music opened up, with loads of American Beauty and Green River and Wild Honey in the grooves.
"Crooked Rain, that's the album where I played the most with the California references," Stephen Malkmus told me a couple of months ago. "The imagery is West Coast, even though it was recorded in New York and I was living there and in Charlottesville." In so many ways, Crooked Rain is the secret twin brother of the Beastie Boys' Paul's Boutique, another coming-of-age album where the youth/adulthood divide mirrors the West Coast/East Coast divide. Except the coasts get flipped — just as the Beasties wrote "Hello Brooklyn" as homesick New Yorkers exiled to L.A., Malkmus had to go east to a Greenpoint loft to sing, "We got deserts, we got trees, we got the hills of Beverly."
Crooked Rain kicks off with a minute of shamelessly corny "the band is warming up now" noises, complete with a fucking cowbell, then a few falsetto notes from the Malk, leading to a lyric of such gibberish that nobody really cares whether it's called "Silence Kid" or "Silent Kit." He swipes a Buddy Holly melody and sings his heart out. At the 2:20 point, the band slips in a nine-note guitar hook from Jimi Hendrix's "Bold As Love" — such a precise (and pointless) (and hilarious) steal. Every second of the song bristles with enthusiasm and confidence. There isn't a phony or forced moment. Who else was aiming this high in 1994? Nobody.
The fact that the songs were funny didn't mean they weren't also beautiful and emotional. So even if the world remembers "Range Life" as the one that bitches out Smashing Pumpkins and Stone Temple Pilots, what really resonates is the plaintive ache in the melody and vocal, especially when Malkmus half-hums that final "Dreamin' dream dream dream dream." Truth be told, the way he caresses the line "Stone Temple Pilots they're elegant bachelors" is the kindest favor anyone ever did the Stone Temple Pilots. (And the funniest joke in "Range Life" will always be the bass solo.)
There's a terrible song on Side Two, "Heaven Is a Truck," which seemed like a joke on the classic-rock tradition of stashing a terrible song halfway through Side Two. In fact, for years I thought Crooked Rain effectively ended with "Range Life" — "Heaven Is a Truck" was my sign to flip the tape and rewind. After that was just a faux-Fall throwaway ("Hit the Plane Down") and the finale "Fillmore Jive," which sounded a little too loose for me. No idea how I underrated "Fillmore Jive" so badly at first, since underrating Pavement was not exactly one of my problems. But it's one of the all-time great album-closers, with so many moments of deranged beauty — that guitar break at the 1:50 point, all those tolling-bell out-of-tune treble flurries, the breathy way Malkmus mourns, "Every night it's straight and narrow."
Crooked Rain threw off the band's expectation cycle for the rest of their career; nobody knew what to do with a new Pavement record again. Every subsequent record they made got either wildly overrated or underrated, just because Crooked Rain made it permanently impossible to adjust expectations. When they released Wowee Zowee, barely a year later, literally everybody agreed it was a massive letdown. (Except Robert Christgau, who praised it so lavishly, fans figured he was insane, until we eventually noticed he was right.)
Three years after Crooked Rain, almost to the day, Pavement released the de facto sequel Brighten the Corners, going even deeper into guitar-ballad beauty action, with lyrics that get coherent for up to 7 or 8 words at a time. These days Brighten is bizarrely underrated, and I'm not the guy to explain why, since I'm in the 5 percent or so of Pavement fans who prefer it to Wowee Zowee. But Wowee is the stoner album while Brighten is the girl album, and all through rock history, the stoner albums always become the hardcore fan faves, even if the girl albums are slightly better (as girl albums tend to be).
If any moment summed up the strange days of 1994, it had to be the night Pavement went on Jay Leno, with Bob Nastanovich rocking his Minutemen T-shirt. The main guest was Drew Barrymore, so punk in her barrettes and kneesocks, promoting her movie Bad Girls, though she ended up chatting mostly about her recent wedding. (The marriage lasted nearly a month. Oh that Drew — she's so lackadaisical, should have been a West Coast bride.) Rolling Stone ran a photo of Malkmus and Drew sitting side by side on Jay's couch: Malkmus hunched like the world's most nervous prom date, Drew smiling like "Remind me again why I got married instead of making out with rock dudes." All of us watching at home hoped they'd go make some grunge babies. I've had that picture taped to the wall by my desk for, oh, 20 years or so. The Nineties-est moment ever. Good night to the rock & roll era, indeed.