What does a defiantly anti-corporate rock band do when it starts getting too much attention? In Pavement’s case, they recoil. After a few ambitiously experimental though eminently tuneful releases — two singles and a 10-inch — for the tiny Drag City label, Pavement produced something of a masterpiece with their Velvet Underground-inspired first album, Slanted and Enchanted (1992). The Stockton, Calif., combo confirmed its buzz-band status on last year’s Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, this time stretching out a bit, with nods to the Flying Burrito Brothers and an “alternative” hit in “Cut Your Hair.” Wowee Zowee finds the group returning to its more doggedly experimental impulses — with disappointing results.
Wowee betrays Pavement’s best and worst tendencies. The band’s refusal to play up to expectations keeps the stronger melodic ideas sounding fresh but leaves the album as a whole feeling scattered and sloppy. Having earlier proved that they can construct solid riffs, hooks and melodies, bandleaders Stephen Malkmus and Scott Kannberg have here turned in a handful of half-baked performances.
Beginning with the stylistically vague “We Dance” — a song that either mocks early British art folk or shamelessly imitates it (I doubt even Pavement know for sure) — the album jerks mindlessly back and forth from odd, mellow song fragments to noisy, messy barnburners. Good, complete songs — including “Rattled by the Rush,” “Grounded” and the Nirvana-like “Kennel District” — become diluted in the soup of tossed-off throwaways: “Brinks Job,” with its whiny-falsetto vocals and a gratuitously noisy conclusion; “Serpentine Pad,” a fleeting slambang tune that comes off like a second-rate Sonic Youth attempting hardcore, and “Best Friends Arm,” which sounds like an unfinished rehearsal.
The most irksome thing about Wowee is that even the worst songs contain elements that reaffirm Pavement’s underground star status: artful use of distortion and feedback, tangled guitar interplay with sizzle and groove, delicious melodies. And wonderful new additions to Pavement’s instrumental palette, such as the milky pedal steel in “Father to a Sister of the Thought,” get lost in the clutter of empty experimentation.
Maybe this album is a radical message to the corporate-rock ogre — or maybe Pavement are simply afraid to succeed.