Rock is dead — long live rock. The Who introduced this contradictory sentiment 20 years ago, around the time of punk’s birth, and Pavement revive it for punk’s rebirth — and not a moment too soon — on their stunning new album, Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain. While the Who smashed guitars and eardrums, Pavement smash preconceptions on Crooked Rain — about how an indie-rock band should sound, about whether “alternative music” is an alternative to anything — creating an album that’s darker and more beguiling than their heralded previous efforts.
Despite — or maybe because of — obvious lifts from Sonic Youth, the Fall and the Pixies on earlier releases, Pavement’s slacker sound, which buried primitive pop melodies under layers of pretty noise and lazy rhythms, made critics and the college-radio crowd swoon. On Crooked Rain, Pavement — vocalist-guitarist Stephen Malkmus, guitarist Spiral Stairs, bassist Mark Ibold, percussionist Bob Nastanovich and drummer Steve West — avoid the expected indie inclinations to noise, volume and lo-fi sound, replacing them with clearly ringing guitars and Bowieesque tinkling piano.
Pavement haven’t entirely outgrown their influences — the Velvet Underground’s dissonant folk rock especially haunts Crooked Rain, and “Gold Soundz” could be a Cure outtake. More typically, though, Pavement self-consciously appropriate from rock’s past, grafting familiar riffs onto their own compositions to disconcerting — and humorous — effect. Sly and the Family Stone’s “Everyday People,” Free’s “All Right Now” and Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction” are all touched on in the opener “Silent Kids” — before the first chorus! Elsewhere, “Cut Your Hair” offers a more-than-passing resemblance to Prince’s “Raspberry Beret,” “5 — 4 = Unity” incorporates the guitar line from the Beatles’ “I Want You (She’s So Heavy),” and “Range Life” ends audaciously with the riff from Billy Squier’s “Everybody Wants You.” These references only make up a small part of Pavement’s approach, however, allowing them to avoid the strained irony of fellow pop revisionists like Teenage Fanclub, Urge Overkill and the Pooh Sticks.
Crooked Rain’s clean production and insidiously catchy melodies hardly signify that Pavement have sold out — if anything, their vision is more warped and caustic than before. On such previous releases as Watery, Domestic; Slanted and Enchanted; and the numerous, hard-to-find vinyl EPs collected on Westing (By Musket and Sextant), the band’s lyrics seemed artily tossed off, resembling dada transmissions from another, more surreal dimension.
On Crooked Rain, though, Malkmus, the band’s principal songwriter, appears concerned with more earthly matters, in particular the rise of alternative music and the concurrent death of rock & roll: As “Newark Wilder” laments: “It’s a brand-new era/And it feels great/It’s a brand-new era/But it came too late.” On “Cut Your Hair,” Malkmus equates the recent popularity of alternative music to a trendy haircut, mocking Nirvana-be’s who “dance right down to the practice room/[To] get attention and fame,” reminding them that “songs mean a lot/When songs are bought/And so are you.” On “Range Life,” Malkmus gets specific in his vitriol, dropping vicious put-downs of his peers that would seem more at home in a hip-hop dis than in that song’s sweet, country-rock shuffle. He targets Smashing Pumpkins, claiming, “They don’t have no function/I don’t understand what they mean/And I could really give a fuck.” He also derides Stone Temple Pilots as “elegant bachelors,” adding that they “do absolutely nothing more to me.” Elsewhere, Malkmus’ lyrics are replete with drug references and desperate, mundane pleas, as in the chorus of “Stop Breathin'” (“Stop breathing for me now”) or this refrain from “Fillmore Jive”: “I need to sleep/Why won’t you let me sleep?”
Despite the real-world concerns of the new songs, Malkmus still occasionally hides behind a veil of irony. Like the early Michael Stipe and Paul Westerberg, Malkmus comes off as a genius against his will and tries as hard as possible to submerge his virtuosity. Yet his intricate verbal subterfuges only make his work more evocative.
Pavement’s contradictions come to a head in the album’s closer “Fillmore Jive,” which is seemingly inspired by the death of Bill Graham and rendered in an elegiac tone reminiscent of Neil Young’s “Cortez the Killer” (and Don McLean’s “American Pie”). In “Fillmore,” Malkmus addresses various punks, rockers and the “dance faction,” bidding them to say “good night to the rock & roll era/’Cause they don’t need you anymore.” It’s ironic in itself that as Malkmus declares that rock is dead, he displays the sort of passion, skepticism and inventiveness that only offers proof of its ongoing vitality.