Wednesday, January 16, 2008

[012] Crooked Rain Crooked Rain

Album: Crooked Rain Crooked Rain
Artist: Pavement
Release Date: February 1994
Label: Matador/Atlantic
Producers: Pavement

“The jam kids on the Vespas
And glum looks on their faces
The street is full of punks
They got spikes...
See those rockers with their long curly locks
Goodnight to the Rock and Roll era
‘Cause they don't need you anymore
Little girl! Boy! GIRL!! BOOOOYYYYYYY!!!”
- from "Fillmore Jive"

Ah, 1994...A time when flannel and cut-off cargo pants were the fashion norm in the halls of High School USA, and not just what Eddie Vedder wore in the “Even Flow” video. Is it weird that Rock and Hip-Hop both decided that heavy hiking/work boots were cool at the same time? Anyway...What was the whole “Slacker” thing? I never got it, not really. Yeah, sure, I guess, my generation has a general malaise which in a lot of ways still extends into the now, with a lack of careerism, and the average marriage age moving from 25 up to 28 or 29, but I never saw the negative effects. It was less being distracted and more being curious to try new things. If anything, it was more initiative, but in a reverse manner to our parents, like I don’t have time to find a job or iron my shirt cuz there are museums to visit and bridges to bungee jump off of. Everything, including employment, is about the life experience. Shit, Pearl Jam were friggin’ careerists in comparison to so many bands. Like Kurt quoting Neil Young, he burned out while Pearl Jam faded away. But Pavement, with their Rock in shambles, was the quintessential ‘Slacker’ band, seemingly not giving two fucks about anything, including their recording quality. We already talked about the glorious noise of Slanted & Enchanted, but the question occurred to me: What makes Pavement’s sound the aural equivalent of the Slacker movement? Was it the songs they wrote, or the way they played & recorded them? Were the songs a mess, played but smart musicians holding them together? Or was the band in tatters, and the songs were so good that the band couldn’t help but sound awesome? Lastly, maybe it was just contempt for the business that they had to be a part of in order to get their music out to people. The answer to these questions is actually one you don’t want because that’s where the mystery of Pavement lies, though I think a hint would be to say it changes from album to album, EP to EP, and maybe even from song to song. The real question should be how does Pavement fit into Rock & Roll’s history, because they are no Stones or Kiss or U2 in that they were not a big stadium band, nor did they want to be. They are the affirmation of the alternative history of Rock, the one that runs from The Velvet Underground and The Stooges, through Big Star and Patti Smith, Buzzcocks and Talking Heads, Minutemen and The Replacements, Pixies and Radiohead, etc, etc. You see the late 1993 press photos included in the LA’s Desert Origins deluxe reissue booklet for this album, and you see these guys aren’t Stone Temple Pilots or Smashing Pumpkins, and that’s why SM singles/calls them out, singing “I don’t understand what they mean” on “Range Life”. You start to wonder how these hopelessly normal looking guys, who look like every guy in your college dorm, not some wild Ziggy Stardust wannabe, made Crooked Rain Crooked Rain into a Rock album of such majestic, alien power.

Looking back now, Pavement are one of the most fascinating bands of all time. First, these 5 suburban guys made the carefree genius of their records seem miraculous, like they just plucked it out of the ether. Second, their evolution was coincidentally the perfect representation of natural artistic growth of a Rock band, that of so many of the greatest acts in music history. Of course, you have the artists that blew their load on the debut, the artists that managed to hold some sort of consistency, the ones that were wildly erratic, etc. Pavement though, they summarized the artists who grew with the journey of life. Their five album career perfectly lays out the trajectory of the artistic phases; the first phase is concerned with youth and rebellion, making a racket, trying to forge something new out of what their heroes and contemporaries did. The second phase is the solidification of their talents, when they realize this music thing can be more than a hobby, but with just enough of the early edge lingering. The third phase is the experimental phase, exploring new styles and technologies and working relationships and chemical accessories. The fourth phase is usually the contentment phase, featuring some form of summary album, drawing from the three previous stages. And the fifth phase is the settling down phase, easing into adulthood with a kinder, gentler approach. Legions of bands, from The Beatles to the Beastie Boys to Radiohead, have vaguely followed this pattern, but with Pavement, it was clearly delineated across their five long-players. And within this fancy theory of mine, the second phase is always the most intriguing and most satisfying.

For their second album, Pavement was a newly minted Band, with a capital B. Remember when they started, they were just SM & Spiral Stairs screwing around in a garage with Gary Young the middle-aged burnout attempting to keep rhythm. They had gone and added bassist Mark Ibold and multi-instrumentalist Bob Natastanovich for the Slanted & Enchanted tours, but Gary fell apart afterward, making another album look unlikely. Malkmus was living in NYC, and found drummer Steve West immediately suitable to jam with, and so Pavement, one of those archetypal sunny California bands, was moving to The City That Never Sleeps. And with the five-man lineup united, a new, more powerful Super-Pavement was born. Everybody, from the band members to tons of writers and critics have exclaimed it was a new day for the band, and it was; there’s gotta be a difference in the dynamics of three people and five people, even if the same two are still writing all the joints. Of their contemporaries, Pavement’s artistic arc is most similar to Beck Hansen’s, or the other way around, really; the progression of the creative approach and ideas from the debut to CRCR is echoed by Beck’s subsequent journey from Mellow Gold to Odelay in that the vague sketch was present in the beginning, but by the second album, the blueprint had been drawn clearly. It’s no coincidence that because both acts’ second (proper) albums were such artistic triumphs, their third and fourth albums are as different as night and day because they had a comfort level creatively…that, and their brains couldn’t contain all of their ideas. Pavement were very smart, but they were sneaky too, trying to camouflage their brains with lackadaisical humor and sarcasm. What gave them away was all the artistic movement from the debut to this album.

Crooked Rain is a lot of fun. Really, it’s just some dudes fucking around, and they happened to make a classic record. Its lazy, tossed-off feel is so infectious, only heightened by the fact that even though four out of the five guys had been touring together, this was the first album they were making as a band. It’s like this: what do you do when you form a band with your friends? You probably sit around a bunch of days trying to cover your favorite songs (when you’re not thinking of possible band names). The Pavement of Crooked Rain sounds more indebted to the classic Rock of their childhoods than on any of their other albums; music can be a great uniting force, especially the songs that you grew up with. They took what they loved about the Rock & Roll we all hear every day on the radio, and turned it inside out; Spiral Stairs jokes in his essay for the deluxe reissue’s liner notes that the band “finally made our ‘Hotel California’!” I think he was only half sarcastic. There’s an inherent joy in trying to remake what you love from childhood. Even when you turn Rock & Roll inside out like Pavement did, it seems part of you still wants to be like your favorite bands, but maybe in reverse. Maybe if The Rolling Stones were deconstructionists like Pavement, they might’ve taken the Muddy Waters Blues as far as away from its source as possible, like Pavement do with The Stones – “Range Life” is such a brilliant, lovingly cobbled together spit-take spoof of the Sticky Fingers classic “Dead Flowers” that you’d think Ian Stewart is banging on the honky-tonk piano.

The touchstones are there. You just have to dig for them. After the jumble that starts the album, “Silence Kid” turns over with a cowbell and a simple chunky riff reminiscent of “Slow Ride” and dozens of other Rock radio hits of the 70’s. It has a breezy, cruising feel to it, funny again considering the Cali band now in the congested streets of NYC, where the skyscrapers generally block out the sun. Halfway through “Kid”, the band crashes to a bluesy halt and busts out a Big Ending which nicely recalls “Our Singer” from Slanted, and sets up as a bookend to encore fodder “Fillmore Jive”. One thing that “Kid” has that carries through most of the album is that these songs are great actors, playing the opposite of what they are; if they’re a small ditty, they come on like a Rock epic, and if they’re profound and moving, they act aloof and uninterested. The lazing in the noon-day sun Gram Parsons country of “Range Life” endures because once you’ve enjoyed its vacation vibe for a while, and you’ve gotten over the knocks on STP and the Pumpkins, you start to rummage around SM’s other words. The song contains some of his most beautiful, bare introspection on how he feels about being part of this “Alternative Nation”, likening the industry and the life to “turn[ing] out into traffic” or a crime wave that’s “never complete until you snort it up or shoot it down”; imagine how he felt about writing those words when Kurt Cobain died just 8 weeks after this album came out.

CRCR has a lot of juicy bits on the music biz, and the state it was in during the early 90’s. The band’s one kinda-hit single, “Cut Your Hair”, one of the best Indie Pop tunes of the 90’s, looks at – presumably – the Dave Grohls and the Sean Kinneys of the world, the line, “Did you see the drummer’s hair?” theorizing that maybe there wasn’t much difference between the Grunge bands and Winger; it’s the old ‘alternative to what?’ argument. Malkmus then goes for laughs by singing a faux want-ad for musicians:

Advertising looks and chops a must / No big hair!!
Songs mean a lot / When songs are bought / And so are you
Fakes right down to the practice room
Your attention and fame's a career
Career, career, career, career...

He sings the word ‘career’ like “Korea”, and I love to think it was an allusion to declaring war on the Seven Mary Threes and the Collective Souls. One thing’s for sure though – the MTV Buzz Bin got the song and the band over to a new level, with Jeff Tweedy eventually ripping it off for Wilco’s “Heavy Metal Drummer”, and ESPN’s Pardon The Interruption using a soundalike theme song because the two hosts are both bald (which is pretty funny). Even though I wasn’t into it at the time, I was always familiar with it; watching the video now, for the first time since it came out, is like a flashback - I instantly remember drummer Steve West turning into a giant gecko in a smoking jacket.

And so it goes through Crooked Rain, built on a spine of disemboweled classic FM Rock and sideways jabs at The Biz (...not Markie. Everyone loves him). “Elevate Me Later” peaks out from behind its Sgt. Pepper-y curtain of psych-guitars to throw darts like, “Range rovin’ with cinema stars”, flogging their “high-protein land” and “40 different shades of black”. Similarly, the forceful “Unfair” wants to “burn the Hills of Beverly”, but out of Northern Cal/Southern Cal territorial feuding. The languid ballad “Stop Breathin’” is less about its Civil War nonsense lyric, and more about the crawling waltz that borrows from Neil Young, surely a bridge to Built To Spill and some of the Post-Rock scene. “Newark Wilder” mines the same rural feel as “Range Life”, but does so at night, stirring a simmering Country Noir with gorgeous peyote guitar and regrets of “brand new era” that “came too late”; the stark, hushed “Heaven Is A Truck” slides out from behind “Range Life” to capture some of its and the “Wilder” magic.

As Rock deconstructionists who still maintained their status as a Rock & Roll band, Pavement are second only to The Velvet Underground, and Crooked Rain is their definitive statement for that reason. Their music remains a prize for anyone who decides to explore that aforementioned alternate history. Pavement aren’t the quintessential “Slacker” band, because being lazy or stoned or apathetic doesn’t matter to Rock & Roll, and in some cases Rock & Roll thrives on those things. But Pavement are the quintessential “Indie Rock” band, in both their disinterest in the major label world – even with Atlantic Records distributing Crooked Rain for Matador, it was decided to leave the Atlantic logo off the record for fear of looking like they sold out – to their disheveled bedroom guitar hero pin-up music geek sound, exemplified by the obtuse but pretty love song “Gold Soundz”, one of Stephen Malkmus’s best songs, and the wasted epic “Fillmore Jive”. The latter is the realization of everything I’ve said about CRCR – the appropriation of Rock’s power and its clichés, turned inside out, reversed negative, held to a funhouse mirror – even the title suggests that the golden days of Billy Graham's famed club were suspect – beginning in a groggy heap like any great lo-fi garage mess before waking up by declaring “I need to sleep!”, pronouncing the Rock & Roll era dead even as they craft a soaring tribute to it, guitar solos flying like free birds. And when they look upon the fakes they ridicule, and want to “pull out their plugs”, they knowingly pull their own, cutting the last line short. As the album just ends, you know that Pavement knew where they stood, taking their irony, sarcasm, “Slacker” wit, and welding them to Rock & Roll, then spinning it around until dizzy and sending it on its way.

01. "Silence Kid"
02. "Elevate Me Later"
03. "Stop Breathin'"
04. "Cut Your Hair"
05. "Newark Wilder"
06. "Unfair"
07. "Gold Soundz"
08. "5 - 4 = Unity"
09. "Range Life"
10. "Heaven Is A Truck"
11. "Hit The Plane Down"
12. "Fillmore Jive"

"Cut Your Hair" [video]

"Gold Soundz" [video]

"Range Life" [video]

"Fillmore Jive" [audio/fan video]

- BONUS: "Silence Kid" [live in Cologne, 03.94]
- BONUS: "Stop Breathin'" [live in Frankfurt, 03.94]
- BONUS: "Cut Your Hair" [live at the 199? Bizarre Festival]
- BONUS: "Gold Soundz" [live in Frankfurt, 03.94]
- BONUS: "Heaven Is A Truck" [Stephen Malkmus, live at the 2007 Pitchfork Festival]

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